Parks Township's Riverside Drive In must upgrade to survive
On a typical summer evening, children run free in a big field, their laughter drowning out the crickets, before they settle down for showtime at Riverside Drive In in Parks Township.
It gets even better once they sit under the stars in the back of a pickup to watch movies, such as the recently released “Monsters University.”
But drive-ins across the country are fretting for their future because of the impending digitalization of major motion pictures.
Digitalized versions of movies will replace 35mm film in about a year or two, which will put a dent in the remaining vestiges of pure Americana, as some drive-ins and small independent theaters are expected to wither.
Todd Ament, owner of the Riverside Drive In, doesn't want to be one of them.
He is trying to raise $70,000 to buy a new projector system to stay in business. He has used a poker run and “crowdfunding,” which is soliciting donations from the public on the Internet.
More closures expected
The Riverside Drive In is entered in Project Drive-in, a national contest sponsored by Honda. Theaters must ring up votes to receive one of five digital projectors, which will replace the soon-to-be-obsolete 35mm projectors.
Fans of the Riverside are urged to register their votes at the Project Drive-in website.
With 360 drive-ins in the United States, the Honda contest provides better odds than playing the Daily Number, but that's hardly security.
“Unfortunately, there will be some closures,” said John Vincent, president of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. Vincent owns an indoor theater and drive-in in Cape Cod, Mass.
Vincent doesn't know how many will close; 210 out of 360 drive-ins have yet to convert to digital projectors.
Many are mom-and-pop operations such as the Riverside, which grosses about $150,000 per year.
In the long run, it's just another technological and financial hurdle that the industry has to clear.
From a peak of 4,000 drive-ins decades ago to fewer than 400, some remnants of the drive-in market will continue to flourish, according to Vincent.
“The ones that are left are top performers in their district,” he said.
And people who love movies tend to frequent all movie venues.
“Some people go for the nostalgia, and they want to see first-run movies on their own terms,” Vincent said.
A professional projectionist, Ament has raised $22,000, almost a third of what he needs for the new projector.
“For me, it's showmanship and it's part preservation,” Ament said.
He remembers going to drive-ins as a kid and falling asleep in his grandparent's Chevy Vega, which had a hatchback.
Nostalgia stillan attraction
Families still roll into the Riverside — formerly known as the Galaxy Drive-In — on summer weekends for a double feature.
And it looks like this year's attendance, already more than 13,000 people, will top last year's, Ament said.
Long gone are the individual speakers hooked to each car's driver's window.
Members of the audience listen to the movie through their car radio, or, as many moviegoers on a recent night chose, through loudspeakers as they sit in the open air in the back of trucks and SUVs. Many customers fashioned comfy bedding areas with stacks of pillows.
Children-sized canvas chairs decorated with Tigger, Pooh or Barbie lined up next to adult tailgating chairs.
A half-dozen workers hustled behind the snack bar brimming with orders of pizza, nachos, cheddar bacon French fries and homemade funnel cakes — easily besting the typical movie theater offerings.
A collective hush fell over the crowd as the first feature began. The only detectable movement was the steady stream of flickering light from the projector, magically transporting Disney's animated “Planes” to the big screen.
The appeal is simple: “It's a place for family and kids — and you don't have to hush the kids,” said Emma Ross, 40, Ament's fiancée, who helps manage the drive-in.
“We used to do this as kids,” said moviegoer Christine Kelly, of Washington Township, “and now we can share this with our kids.”
Becky and Shane Sechrist of Murrysville and their two daughters visited the Riverside for the first time earlier this year.
“We had a lot of fun,” said Becky, who returned again last week. “It was soggy, and we still enjoyed ourselves.”
Her husband added, “It's very family-friendly and relaxing.”
Anna Sechrist, 5, noted, “And we get to stay up late.”
Longtime drive-in fan Ryan Schuller, 32, of Lower Burrell said, “It's the freedom and the experience.”
Freedom for children to run around, he said. Freedom for parents to bring whatever food they want.
And for Samantha Schuller, 9, it's freedom “to sit where you want and not in some wooden seat.”
For others, it's more than a night out.
Recently, 14 Boy Scouts from Troop 23 from Dormont set up 10 tents to watch a flick and spend the night.
Then the next day, the snack bar served breakfast as the boys got ready for a kayak and canoe trip down the Kiski River.
“This is something novel,” said Lou Casadei, assistant Scoutmaster from Green Tree. “Camping, movies, canoeing — it doesn't get any better.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.