The best seat in the house is your car: Newton‚??s Valle Drive-in is central Iowa‚??s oldest drive-in theater, and one of only four remaining in the state. / The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- One of these days, movie distributors will stop shipping out reels of 35-millimeter film. And when they do, hundreds of drive-in theaters will finally have to upgrade to tidy digital projectors, for a tidy price.
"They keep pushing back the deadline, but we think they might actually mean it this time," said Katie Pletcher, who manages the Valle Drive-In in Newton, Iowa.
She figures the deadline will hit next spring, which is why she entered the business in a monthlong online contest that ends Sept. 9. The American branch of Honda will award a new projector to the five top vote-getters - maybe the Valle, or maybe one of the dozens of other contenders scattered nationwide.
Drive-ins have been a classic part of more than 80 American summers, surviving technological advances and changing tastes that put thousands of others out of business. A good chunk of the 350 or so that remain could be forced to turn out the lights because they can't afford the digital switch.
The $70,000-plus investment required per screen is hefty, especially for what is in most places a summertime business kept alive by mom-and-pop operators.
In Newton, Valle owners Jim and Barb Mertz have no plans to close, but a free projector sure couldn't hurt. Jim Mertz bought the business in 1976 from the original owners who built the place back in 1949.
"The drive-in will always be there. It's going to last longer than I do," Mertz said.
The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association figures 50 to 60 theaters have already converted to digital gear. At least one operator decided to close instead of switch, but it's not clear how many more might go dark next year.
"You'll be digital or you'll close your doors," said Walt Effinger, whose Skyvue Drive-In in central Ohio opened a year before the Valle. "If you're not doing enough business to justify the expense, you're just going to have to close up."
The Skyvue, like the 61 Drive-In on Highway 61 south of Maquoketa, Iowa, has already converted to digital. The movies now come on a device the size of a portable hard drive and are downloaded to the projector, which requires less hassle for the staff and gives viewers a stunningly clearer image.
Think of the picture on a flat-screen digital TV, compared with the old tube set.
The digital transformation has been underway in the film industry for more than a decade because of the better picture and sound quality and the ease of delivery - no more huge reels of film, for better or worse.
"We know fewer and fewer prints are being struck," said D. Edward Vogel, who runs the historic Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore, Md., and is a spokesman for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
An industry incentive program will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the cost of conversion over time, Vogel said, but because most drive-ins are small, family-run businesses, it's hard for many to find the money, period. The reimbursement doesn't cover the tens of thousands of dollars more that many will have to spend renovating projection rooms to create the climate-controlled conditions needed for the high-tech equipment. It's a dilemma also faced by many of the nation's independent indoor theaters, which are struggling to pay for the digital conversion years behind the corporate-owned multiplexes.
The number of drive-ins peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s, often on cheap, edge-of-town real estate that became much more valuable in the decades that followed. There were 357 nationwide at last count and just four still active in Iowa.
But Mertz is optimistic. He's been in the movie business since 1954 and has seen drive-in audiences grow - in the golden age of the '50s and '60s - and gradually shrink - in the '70s and '80s, when they catered to teens - and then grow again. He's seen a comeback now with families looking for a cheap night out and a dose of nostalgia.
"We're getting a lot of people who bring their kids because (the kids) have never seen a drive-in before," Mertz said. Kids got in free up until two or three years ago, but even at $4, he said, "that's still cheap compared to the indoor theaters."
The Valle will be open nightly for another week and then just on weekends through mid-October, depending on the weather. And if manager Pletcher gets her way, it will open next spring with a new projector.
"It's the best job I've ever had," she said. "I like the people. I like petting all the dogs in the parking lot. I just like everything about it."
Contributing: The Associated Press
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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