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As Shown in the TORONTO STAR May-16-2013
The last outdoor picture show: North York Drive In closing could be first of many
As Hollywood stops using 35-mm film, drive-in theatres are forced to upgrade to digital or shut down.
Many drive-in theatres may fade to black within the next year.
Hollywood has plans to suspend 35-mm film prints and go completely digital by the end of 2013, and that means curtains for outdoor theatres that don’t convert soon to costly digital projection equipment, which can cost $100,000 per screen.
Unlike indoor theatres, it’s tougher for drive-in operators to invest in new equipment with their seasonal operations.
The first local casualty is the North York Drive In in Sharon, Ont., which announced on Facebook this week it would not open for the summer season, blaming it on technology.
“Technology and conversion to digital projection has made us obsolete and threatens other independent theatres,” said the posting. “For 58 years we have enjoyed sharing summers with loyal customers and staff, many of whom have become good friends. Unfortunately due to development and changes to digital film we are unable to continue the tradition this year.”
There are 359 drive-ins in the U.S. and 55 in Canada — about one-quarter of those in Ontario — according to the website Drive-ins.com. At their peak in 1958 there were 4,000 to 5,000 outdoor theatres in North America.
Only about 10 per cent of drive-in exhibitors in the U.S. have upgraded to digital projectors for their large outdoor screens, according to statistics from an industry association, the Los Angeles Times has reported.
Mark Murrell, son of North York Drive In owner Cliff Murrell, 71, said the family considered upgrading.
But it could have cost close to $250,000 to get the new equipment for the drive-in’s three screens.
“Yes, it is sad for all of us,” the younger Murrell says. “It was my dad’s life”.
“I think the digital concept is a bit less expensive for regular theatres. We just couldn’t manage it.”
He says several other southern Ontario drive-ins face the same dilemma.
Chris Bilinski, a comptroller for Toronto’s Premier Operating Corp., which operates four drive-ins (all digital) in southern Ontario, including the 5 Drive-In Theatre in Oakville, estimates 15 drive-in theatres remain in Ontario with a total of about 23 screens.
He says only about half have gone digital. The rest of the owners, like the Murrell family, face a difficult business decision.
“Do I think a lot of the independents want to go digital . . . I’m sure they do, but can they afford it?” says Bilinski. “That’s the question.”
He says the “heat is on” for those relying on 35-mm movies. The films are disappearing and there won’t be enough to go around for theatres with outdated projectors.
Still, Bilinski believes there’ll be a bit of leeway with some major production houses still supplying 35-mm film into 2014.
He says the closing of the North York Drive In doesn’t mean a death knell for all outdoor theatres, which have a following in various communities.
“They’re getting popular again, if anything,” he says. “But, yes, buying new equipment (if you are a family operation) to keep up with the industry would be difficult.”
New digital projectors can cost from $30,000 to $100,000 depending on bells and whistles.
Bilinski knows how hard it is for some independent operations.
All four of his company’s theatres — including the Starlite Drive-In in Stoney Creek, the Sunset Barrie Drive-In in Barrie, Ont., and the Mustang Drive-In in London, Ont. — were bought from independent owners during the past few years.
The theatres were refurbished and upgraded with the latest digital equipment.
“A lot of the places had been around for years and were a bit rundown,” he says. “We’ve given them a new life and we still have the same families that have been coming forever.”
He says there are some independent operators who want to fly solo and are planning to spend money on digital upgrades, including the Starlite in Grand Bend and a theatre in Port Elmsley.
“You don’t buy a car and stop driving it when the wheels wear out,” Bilinski says. “You buy new wheels.”
But one thing is certain: all theatres will have to go digital eventually.
A spokesperson at Polson Pier in Toronto says it will open its drive-in theatre Friday with a film version of Star Trek Into Darkness.
Dave Paolini, a spokesperson for Christie Digital Systems of Kitchener, which supplies digital cinema projectors, says the old celluloid format is almost extinct and that movie operators must convert or they won’t have any new product to project.
“The Hollywood studios gave notice about five years ago that, because of the increased security, better quality and overall advantages of digital movie prints over film prints, they would cease to produce their movies in the film (celluloid) form,” Paolini said in an email.
Digital movies are typically delivered on a hard drive or, in some cases, the signal can be beamed in by satellite, all for security reasons
In the old days, theft was an issue as the film canisters could be stolen and the celluloid bootlegged.
Now, 90 per cent of the world’s projectors are digital.