Will Technology Drive the Drive-In Out of Business?

30 August, 2014

More and more movie theaters around the world are replacing older equipment with modern technology. The new equipment heightens the movie-watchers' experience. The images are sharper, the sound is clearer.  But what is happening to the less wealthy and much rarer drive-in theaters around the country? We go to the central state of Indiana to find out.

It is Friday and the sun is setting over LaSalle County. The sunset signals that it is time for another show at the Route 34 Drive-In. A drive-in is an outdoor theater, where people watch movies while sitting in their cars. Thousands of such theaters existed in America in the middle of last century. 

The Route 34 theater opened in Earlville, Indiana 60 years ago. Its owner, Ronald Magnoni, says now only a few drive-ins are still in operation.

"At one time there were 5,000 drive-ins. Right now there's about 388 left."

The popular Route 34 Drive-In appeals to hundreds of moviegoers a week in the summer. The property has about two hectares of space for cars. 

Mr. Magnoni first started working at the drive-in in 1987. In 1994, he bought the business. He says Route 34 has survived a lot in the last 60 years. There have been major repairs.

"That's the third screen right there behind me. The first one blew down. The second one, half of it blew down when they were running a movie. And I had a tornado here.  It  almost took mine down again."

But what a windstorm did not claim, technology might.

The movie magic appearing weekly on Route 34's huge outdoor screen comes from an old film projector built in the 1950s. The equipment soon may be unusable as more companies stop providing movies on film. Many movies are now played with digital technology.

Ronald Magnoni says that may be too costly for him and his business.

"The machine that I need costs $70,000. I don't have the kind of resources that these big chains have."

It is a problem many independent theater owners face. The move to digital technology places many of them in difficult positions. It can threaten the design of old buildings and historically important structures. The Patio Theater in Chicago is an example. Demetri Kouvalis is the owner.

"The Patio Theater is an old school classic movie palace from a bygone era where you don't see many of these theaters left, not only in Chicago but in the whole country."

The Patio Theater now has a digital film player thanks to donations of $50,000. The change helps ensure the theater's future.

But drive-in owner Ronald Magnoni does not support digital technology. 

"There's no flicker to it. The people look too good. It doesn't look like a movie."

But he knows he will have to accept the new system if he wants to stay in business. Most movie companies plan to stop providing film by next year.  So, Mr. Magnoni has been seeking donations to buy the equipment.  He says he has received about 30 percent of the money he needs.