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Upgrades have drive-in owners fretting for future

| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 7:40 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Joe Warren, owner of Evergreen Drive In in East Huntingdon Township near Mt. Pleasant stands for a portrait next to one of his 35mm film projectors on Thursday, September 19, 2013.

In his four decades in the movie-theater business, Jerry Salnoris has seen many changes. Technology has altered the way nearly everything works.

Now, Salnoris and hundreds of other drive-in owners are facing a change that's threatening to cause screens across the country to go dark.

“Changes have been expensive, but it's been nothing like this,” says Salnoris, owner of the Twin Hi-Way Drive-In in Robinson. “Unless we come up with a game plan, we could be history.”

Insiders anticipate the movie industry will switch from film to digital projection entirely by the end of the year. Upgrading can run around $70,000 per screen, theater owners say. That's not a cost many are in a position to pay.

To help at least a few, Honda has launched Project Drive-In, an online competition where folks can vote on their favorite theaters for a chance to win them a new digital projector. Votes also are accepted via text.

“Who better than a car company, and one like Honda, to help save this important piece of American car culture?” says Alicia Jones, manager of Honda & Acura Social Marketing. “With this project, we wanted to directly help drive-ins but also to shine a light on the issue these small businesses were facing and help build some awareness and buzz to help even more.”

Voting for the project continues through Sept. 21. Four winners will be announced Sept. 23. Honda already gave away five projectors in an earlier contest.

According to the project's website, there are 368 drive-ins left in America. Owners say, even in the age of technology, the show must go on.

“I echo so many other owners when I say we don't do this because we're making tons of cash,” says Salnoris. “We do it because we love it. Nothing compares to it.”

There are a few other options to keep businesses operating, owners say. Some are looking at leasing equipment. Others have considered appealing to the community with fundraisers.

Joe Warren, owner of the Evergreen Drive-In in Mt. Pleasant, says there's some first-generation used equipment on the market, but even that would have to be replaced if there are necessary upgrades in the future.

“Three of four years down the road, it won't be usable,” he says.

The best thing people can do to help, Warren says, is simply go to a movie. “You really have to support the drive-in — go and take your friends,” he says.

Brian Erwin, owner of the Comet Drive-In in Connellsville, says he's not sure the purchase is worth the time it would take to recoup its expense.

“I don't know that I want to work 30 more years to pay that back,” he says.

Erwin is considering updating just one of the Comet's two screens, but isn't sure that's even a viable long-term option.

“High-tech is wonderful, but is comes and goes so fast,” he says. “I don't know what the answers will be.”

Even as they're facing this hurdle, owners report a boost in business. The Riverside Drive-in in Vandergrift set a record this year with three sell-out nights in one week around the Fourth of July, owner Todd Ament says.

A series of popular children's flicks helped this year, as well, with “Monsters University,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Turbo,” “Smurfs 2” and “Planes” drawing in big crowds. Ament expects the same for the Sept. 27 release of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.”

“This year was our best season by far,” Ament says.

The renewed interest in drive-ins is all the more reason owners are scrambling to find a solution to their projector woes.

“We can't let this piece of history slip away,” says Salnoris. “We can't let go without a fight.”

Details: www.projectdrivein.com

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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