Drive-ins facing major expense

BROADALBIN – The owners of the Ozoner 29 Drive-In in Broadalbin and El Rancho Drive-In in Palatine Bridge say a change to digital films in the industry could put them out of business.

Movie studios are phasing out 35mm film prints, and the switch to an eventually all-digital distribution system is pushing the outdoor theaters to make the expensive change to digital projectors.

Some of the 350 or so drive-in theaters left across the county could be forced to turn out the lights because they can’t afford to adapt to the digital age.

The $70,000-plus investment required per screen is significant. Paying for the switch would suck up owners’ profits.

Darci and Bill Wemple, owners of the Ozoner and El Rancho drive-ins, say they hope an online competition will help them with the $225,000 to $250,000 they figure it will cost to switch their three screens.

The American Honda Motor Co. is compiling online votes for the nation’s favorite drive-ins and will pay the digital conversion costs for the top five vote-getters. The Wemples said if they don’t get help, they’ll have to consider closing.

Bill Wemple said they bought the El Rancho, which has been around since 1952, 18 years ago before building and operating the Ozoner 29 on Route 29 10 years ago.

Wemple said he hopes the Honda promotion will help ease some of the concerns.

Wemple said he sees no need for the change to digital.

“Film wasn’t broke,” he said.

“To make this kind of conversion with three screens is like trying to buy another drive-in all over again,” Darci Wemple said.

Bill Wemple said to be successful, drive-ins have to be cheaper than a full movie theater and offer a relaxed, family environment.

Chris Glover, who attended a showing of “Kick-Ass 2” and “We’re the Millers” on Friday with Andrea Chittenden, said the drive-in “is a change of pace.”

Glover said he is concerned what theaters such as the Ozoner will do when the all-digital media becomes standard.

“It’s cheap, it’s family owned, it’s something for [families] to do,” Glover said

The number of drive-ins peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s. Now there are 357.

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association figures 50 to 60 theaters already have been converted. At least one operator has closed instead of switch, but it’s not clear how many more might shut down.

The digital transformation has been under way 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. The time frame isn’t clear, but production companies are phasing out traditional 35mm film, and it’s expected to disappear over the next few years.

An industry incentive program will reimburse theater owners 80 percent of the cost of conversion over time, but because most drive-ins are small, family-run businesses, it’s hard for many to find the money up-front. 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.