Digital era puts squeeze on drive-ins

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Elm Road Drive-In Theatre in Warren is in the process of making the expensive transition to digital projection. Skyway Drive-In, also in Warren, completed the changeover last month. Both businesses are open for the season.


Like a scene from a blockbuster summer action movie, the digital- projection cliff is rapidly approaching.

It’s a very real threat that will hurl some nonchain movie theaters and drive-ins into oblivion.

But it appears the catastrophe is being averted in the Mahoning Valley.

The Hollywood studios began phasing in digital projection about a decade ago, and the deep-pocketed theater chains have long since converted.

The cost of switching from 35 mm film — which had been the norm for decades — to digital projection ranges from $30,000 to $70,000 per screen, with drive-ins at the higher end.

It’s generally conceded in the film industry that 2013 will be the final year that Hollywood will use the 35 mm film format. So theater owners must spend the money now or close by next year.

But it’s a steep price tag for mom-and-pop businesses, and quite a few are expected to fall victim to the transition nationwide.

Fewer than 370 drive-ins remain in the United States — at their peak, there were about 4,000 — and the digital changeover is squeezing them especially hard. Drive-ins require more powerful — and expensive — equipment because they are outside and must project the image onto a gigantic screen hundreds of feet away. They are also a seasonal business in northern states, and must make all of their revenue in the warm months.

The Valley’s two drive-ins — Elm Road and Skyway, both in Warren — are in good shape. Skyway installed digital projectors last month, and Elm Road just began the process of installing them this week.

Encore Cinema, in Great East Plaza in Niles, is owned by Brian DeCiancio, who also owns Skyway. The second-run multiplex began installing digital equipment on its six screens last year.

The only other locally owned theater is the Salem Twin Cinema, in Salem. Its owners have not yet installed digital projectors and are still deciding when — or if — they will. They are currently evaluating the costs, according to a statement released to The Vindicator.

Bob Hreno and his family, including daughter Sheri Hocevar and her hus- band,Mark, own and operate the three-screen Elm Road Drive In.

Hreno said he has purchased three brand-new state-of-the-art digital projectors, each the size of a horizontal refrigerator, plus custom-made pedestals to mount them on. The price tag came to $250,000.

Elm Road has always maintained two projectors for each screen, in case the one in use failed. Hreno will keep one 35mm projector in the booth for each screen, with the new digital projector mounted next to it.

The installation work is ongoing, but the digital projectors should be in use by May 15. The drive-in opened for the season last week.

Hreno said his company has been preparing for years for the changeover.

“We’ve been saving money all along for it,” he said. “Digital has been around for 10 years, but they have only made projectors big enough for drive-ins for the past two years.”

Digital projectors play movies that are on secure computer discs, which are much smaller and lighter than a traditional reel of 35 mm film. “Most people don’t realize how much it costs studios to send a 35 mm film to theaters,” he said. “One movie will weigh 60 pounds, and they are sent all over the world.”

The shipping costs for films using digital projection are therefore much less, he explained, and a big money-saver for studios. Another benefit of digital is a clearer and steadier picture and flawless sound.

At Skyway Drive In on North Leavitt Road, which opened April 5, owner DeCiancio has already converted both screens to digital at a total cost of about $140,000.

He said that another reason for the much-higher costs of installing digital projection at a drive-in is that the booth must be made theft-proof, and also insulated and equipped with temperature control systems.

DeCiancio is partially through the conversion process at Encore Cinemas, which will require about $240,000 to go digital on all six screens.

“We planned ahead,” said DeCiancio, when asked about how he raised the money. “We get strong support at our concession stand. Plus having the six-screen indoor theater helps, because it’s a year-round business. ”

DeCiancio purchased Encore in November, but has owned Skyway for a dozen years.

The drive-in business, he said, earns almost all of its revenue from maybe 10 or 12 good weekends per year.

It’s not easy, but it’s in his blood. “It’s time-consuming and you need to have a passion for it,” said DeCiancio, “but I thoroughly enjoy it.”

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