TAMPA — As digital technology takes over movie screens across the nation, immersing cinema buffs in crisp picture and sound, drive-in theaters are poised for extinction.
The problem: They clung to antiquated equipment, mainly because it costs so much to join the 21st century.
Not in the Tampa area, though.
Four local outdoor movie theaters saw the change coming and have anted up, laying out tens of thousands of dollars to buy digital projectors and stay in business.
“There’s no alternative,” said Ruth McPhee, manager of the four-screen Fun-Lan Drive-In on East Hillsborough Avenue. “You either are going to have to do it or you’re out of business. I’d hate to see the drive-in go out of business.”
McPhee said the theater purchased one new-fangled digital projector about a month ago and is considering getting a second one before the end of the year. They will project movies onto the theater’s two bigger screens. The future of the two smaller screens is up in the air, she said.
The 63-year-old theater — the last of its kind in Tampa — shows first-run movies and recent releases nightly on four screens.
In May, the Joy-Lan Drive-In, on U.S. 301 north of Dade City, more than 50 years old, spent $70,000 on a new digital projector.
“If you don’t convert, you will be out of business at the end of 2013,” said theater owner Harold Spears. “It may be a little sooner.”
Spears said he saw the change coming three years ago and began the expensive process of converting from to digital projection.
Spears, who has been in the drive-in business since 1955, also owns the Silver Moon Drive-In on New Tampa Highway in Lakeland, which was converted to digital two years ago.
The Silver Moon has shown movies for 65 years and was the first of its kind in the area. Now, it shows first-run movies in digital format on both its screens.
The Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre on U.S. 41 also saw the change coming and a few years ago, owners began to scrape enough cash together to buy a digital projector, which they purchased about a year ago. On the theater’s website, movie posters are for sale to help raise money to help maintain the new projector.
Major movie studios have been nudging theaters toward digital for years and have warned theater owners they will stop distributing 35 mm film by the end of December. Studios say the technology will save them around a $1 billion a year.
The historic, indoor Tampa Theatre took the plunge this summer, investing more than $100,000 on the two digital projectors and a state-of-the-art sound system.
Big megaplex movie theaters mostly have gone digital, while smaller, privately owned movie houses — including drive-ins — can struggle under the weight of a new digital projection system.
Industry advocates predict some screens may go dark come next year with mom-and-pop theaters unable to swing an investment of $60,000 to $80,000 per projector.
The main concern is for drive-ins, throwbacks to a half-century ago when families and lusting teens piled into cars to watch movies in a bit of privacy. Few survived the onslaught of multiple theater movie complexes.
Digital, they fear, could the death knell for drive-in theaters in largely rural areas and operating hand to mouth.
The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association says that of the 350 drive-ins across the nation, 50 to 60 have joined the digital age, opting out of the 35 mm film format with the big bulky reels and clackety-clack projectors.
“We know fewer and fewer prints are being struck,” said D. Edward Vogel, spokesman for the Maryland-based 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 they need now.
And 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.
The Cinema Buying Group, a support organization for movie theater owners, says independent film showers across the nation are in a pinch.
Hundreds of independent operators already have elected to forego conversion, the group’s website says.
“At stake is ... the heart and soul of the industry,” the group says on the website said. “It is the independents who bring texture and depth and local color to the business of showing movies.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.