Brownsville Drive-In calls on public to ensure future
For more than 60 summers, the Brownsville Drive-In has endured technological advances and survived changing tastes that have put many outdoor theaters out of business.
Now entering the digital age, there's a chance the Brownsville Drive-In – along with other remaining open-air theaters across the nation – could be forced to turn out the lights for good.
Movie studios are phasing out 35 mm film prints, for decades the standard in theatrical projection, and eventually will switch to an all-digital distribution system.
As a result, outdoor theaters must make the change to pricey digital projectors or leave the industry.
The $70,000-plus investment required per screen is significant, especially in an industry niche mostly limited to summertime business and driven by mom-and-pop operators.
Paying for the switch would suck up most owners' profits for years to come.
The digital transformation has been under way in the film industry for more than a decade because of better picture and sound quality and ease of delivery — no more huge reels of film.
The Brownsville Drive-In, located along the historic National Pike (U.S. 40) in Grindstone, has been screening movies under the stars since 1949.
Manager Charlie Perkins said the switch to digital projection will cost about $75,000 to $100,000 per screen.
“It's very expensive to make the transition, plus we have three screens,” Perkins said.
The number of drive-ins nationwide peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s. Now there are 357.
Perkins hopes the public will help support the local theater's effort to win a digital projector through the Project Drive-In contest.
The American Honda Motor Co. is compiling online votes for the nation's favorite drive-ins and is going to pay digital conversion costs for the top five vote-getters
Project Drive-In is Honda's effort to save as many drive-ins as possible and to ensure that “this historic part of American cinema and car culture lives on.”
“Cars and drive-in theaters go hand in hand, and it's our mission to save this slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for so many of us,” said Alicia Jones, Honda and Acura social marketing manager.
Perkins said the drive-in“means a lot to our community.”
“It is one of the very few things left in Fayette County for entertainment,” Perkins said. “We need everyone to vote daily and help us win so we can stay open for years to come.”
Voting at www.projectdrivein.com began Aug. 9 and will continue through Sept. 9.
To vote directly for the Brownsville Drive-In, go to www.projectdrivein.com/vote_92 or text VOTE92 at 444999 on cellular phones. Votes can be entered daily. There is also a link to vote via the Brownsville Drive-In website at www.tjent.com.
The winners will be announced in September.
Perkins said that if the Brownsville Drive-In wins, it may be able to eventually upgrade a second screen. But it's unlikely the third screen will be used once film prints are gone.
He said many people don't realize the costs associated with keeping the theater open.
“We do pack them in, but the profit from the movies is a small percentage. If we charge $8 admission, we may only get 80 cents,” Perkins said. “We have a lot of employees, and we offer a clean, family-friendly environment.”
Perkins said the majority of profit comes from the snack bar.
The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association figures 50 to 60 theaters have already converted.
At least one operator decided to close instead of switch, but it's not clear how many more might give up.
Perkins said going to the drive-in has been a family tradition in the area for years.
Brothers John Sebeck and Tom Clark started working at the Brownsville Drive-In in the early 1960s as teenagers.
When the opportunity came in 1972 to purchase the drive-in, the brothers moved quickly. Clark died in 2011, but Sebeck is still involved at the theater.
Perkins said operators have not been given a date for the digital conversion, but knows the deadline is looming. The traditional 35 mm film is expected to disappear completely over the next few years.
“We want to be here for a long time, so we're just asking for everyone to vote for us,” Perkins said.
Stacy Wolford is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-684-2640 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.