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Drive-ins face digital dilemma

By Jim Conrad, jconrad@wcyb.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 02:24:18 AM CST
Updated On: Aug 16 2013 04:12:46 PM CDT

We learned a couple of weeks back about the small number of drive-in theaters still left across America. There are only 368 left and after this summer that number could shrink dramatically.

Bristol, Tenn. -

We learned a couple of weeks back about the small number of drive-in theaters still left across America. There are only 368 left and after this summer that number could shrink dramatically.

At the end of September only one film distribution company will offer film. So for the theaters, it's go digital or die.

Danny and Ellen Warden, owners of the Twin City Drive-In Theatre in Bristol, are getting ready for visitors; not to see a movie but campers coming to the August race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"We're better off than most drive in theaters because the race helps us and we're not in a flood zone, except on property taxes. We're not better than most," the Wardens said.

But there's a looming cost coming -- the old projectors will have to go. The film companies are going digital. "They want to do everything compact. They don't want [film] anymore. It costs them more money to make prints," the Wardens told us.

But to go to the digital format costs a theater over a hundred thousand dollars. Will it force the Wardens to retire from the drive-in theatre business? "Perhaps for us now, somebody buys the property and keeps it as a drive-in. I'm sure there might be someone out there that might be interested," the couple reluctantly said.

At the State Line Drive-In near Elizabethton, a voting campaign is going on. There's an online contest called Project Drive-In happening through September 9 to help drive-ins with the costs of going digital. "Honda Motor Corporation has decided to ask for votes. The top five vote getters for the country will be given the equipment to update to digital," State Line patron Sherilyn Dean says.

For owner Andy Wetzel, its a big expense. He and his wife bought the theatre from his wife's stepfather to keep it in the family. "It's coming to the point now where it's another big financial decision for us, as it was in 1995 to buy the place. Are we going to make this upgrade?" Andy wondered.

So the State Line got involved in the contest, the only drive-in involved in the region to do so. And if they don't win? "We're not sure. We're staying optimistic and we're hoping that everybody is going to vote and we're going to do this. We're staying positive," Wetzel says.

It's a tough decision for all theaters, indoor and out. For the drive-ins, it could mean that we'll lose another one of our historic icons to technology.

To vote in the contest click here.