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Digital technology threatens drive-in theaters

CLEVELAND (AP) — The survival of drive-in theaters is being threatened as movie studios abandon film, forcing drive-in owners to switch to expensive digital equipment.

No one has a handle on how many of the country's 357 drive-ins, including the 29 in Ohio, will choose to go digital to survive, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer ( reported Sunday. But some drive-in owners are declining to buy the necessary $70,000 projectors and won't have movies to show once the film supply ends later this year.

Ohio's 29 drive-ins tie the state with New York for the second most outdoor drive-ins in the country, topped only by Pennsylvania with 30, according to the United Drive-in Theater Association. But owners around the country have to decide whether to invest the money in a digital system or go under, said D. Edward Vogel, secretary of the association and owner of Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore.

Studios will save about a billion dollars a year by no longer putting movies both on film and digital hard drives, according to Pat Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Most indoor theaters made the transition to digital years ago. But many outdoor theaters delayed buying the expensive technology due to the costs of projectors and other improvements including 24-hour air conditioning to keep the units cool. Drive-ins pay also more than three times as much for the digital system as indoor theaters do because the giant screens require larger projectors.

Owners of two theaters in Mansfield in northern Ohio already have decided not to make the switch, but the Aut-O-Rama Drive-In in North Ridgeville near Cleveland installed a digital system for its two screens in April. Co-owner Deb Sherman said they had to take out a loan, but that it was "something we had to do."

Rich Reding, co-owner of the Lynn Drive-In Movie in Strasburg, south of Massillon, said they could afford the new equipment for only one screen, but that it "was time to move up or move out."

While the average admission at drive-ins is only about $5, many fans consider the outdoor theaters more than just places to see movies at lower prices.

"You can relax here, be yourself," said Natasha Peters, of Mount Gilead, who recently attended the Sunset drive-in in Mansfield with several nieces and nephews.

"You don't have to dress up," Peters, 39, said. "You don't have to hire a baby sitter. The kids put on their pajamas and treat it like an adventure."

She was disappointed that the Sunset is one of the drive-ins that will be closing.

Fundraising campaigns have helped some drive-ins around the country survive. In Shelton, Wash., $40,000 was raised to help the Skyline Drive-In switch to the new technology, and the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater in Vermont is running a fundraising campaign.

.But the number of drive-ins is dwindling. While the industry managed to survive a downturn in the 1970s and 1980s — with 42 new ones built nationally since 1990 and 62 others reopening during that period — it peaked in the 1950s with 5,000 locations was reduced to 750 in 1990.

Gary Grieve decided to make the switch to digital equipment at his northeast Ohio drive-ins — the Magic City Drive-In in Barberton and the Blue Sky Drive-In in Wadsworth.

"None of us will have a choice if we want to stay in business," Grieve said.

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