Will Newberg's drive-in survive the digital conversion?

Will Newberg's drive-in survive the digital conversion?
The 99W Drive-In in Newberg, Ore. Photo courtesy of the Francis family.

NEWBERG, Ore. - "We're not going to close," the owner of the 99W Drive-In in Newberg told us. "Closing won't be thought of."

Still, Brian Francis can't help but worry about the drive-in his grandfather first opened in 1953 with a screening of Sea Devils starring Rock Hudson and Yvonne DeCarlo. Three generations of his family have operated the drive-in for six decades. They also run the Cameo Theatre and Twin Cinemas in Newberg.

"It's such a landmark and part of the Newberg landscape and history here - 60 seasons now," Francis said.

Technology is changing, though. Drive-in theaters will soon no longer be able to get 35 mm film prints from movie studios as the push towards an all-digital platform takes hold.

That means drive-ins will need digital projectors to run movies and that type of equipment doesn't come cheap. The price tag is around $70,000 - a daunting figure for what in most places is a summertime business kept alive by mom-and-pop operators. Paying for the switch would suck up most of an owners' profits for years to come.

"I know it's been coming for ten years and we've been trying to save for it, but things come along," said Francis. "And it's such a huge amount of money. We're seasonal and it's really only a Friday and Saturday business."

And as is the case with any huge undertaking, there are hidden costs.

"What you're doing is putting a very high-end, expensive computer into a hot, dusty, oily projection booth," Francis said. "So there will need to be some booth modifications for climate control - like a heat pump or an air conditioning system, an exhaust system because the machines get hot. And we will probably need to replace some of the old windows with double pane windows to make it more dust proof and climate controlled."

Francis said at least the screen wouldn't need to be replaced. He said they would probably just slap a new coat of paint on it, which is something they do every 10 years or so anyway.

The 99W Drive-In in Newberg, Ore. Photo courtesy of the Francis family.

Drive-in theaters have been around for 80 years. The first one opened in 1933 in New Jersey and by the 1950s, there were more than 4,000 of them. Today, however, there are only around 350 of them left.

According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, around 50 to 60 of those drive-in theaters have already converted. At least one operator decided to close instead of switch, but it's not clear how many more might bite the dust.

We asked our Facebook fans for some of their favorite drive-in memories. Here are a few:

Being with my Papa and seeing Free Willy twice in one night! We had all the goodies and my sister and I poked our heads out of the sunroof just to see the movie. It was a wonderful night. - Noah Lustman

Playing on the playground in our pajamas. We had to be back in the car when it started getting dark. I think my parents were necking in the meantime! - Rachael Carnagey

That was our treat when we were kids. We would pack up in the station wagon and go watch two movies and a cartoon. Loved them!! - Sandy Seamster

My first drive-in was to see Bambi in the 60s.
- Ruth Townsend

Going on a blind date and seeing Grease in the 70s - what a night... - Derrick Casady

Oregon has just four drive-ins in the entire state - in Newberg, Dallas, La Grande and Milton-Freewater. Francis said Oregon's other three drive-ins have already converted to digital and he's the last hold-out.

"I'm probably a little hesitant or I might have already started the conversion, but I haven't yet and now the ax is falling on film," he said.

Francis has been in the business long enough to have connections where he can still get many of the 35 mm titles he wants, but he is starting to notice the shift.

"Disney Studios are telling me they are only going to put 35 mm out on their larger titles now," he said. "The smaller titles that come out will be only on hard drives. It's starting to dry up."

Francis is pinning at least some of his hopes on winning a national contest.  The American Honda Motor Co. is compiling online votes for the nation's favorite drive-ins and is going to pay the digital conversion costs for the top five vote-getters. The contest ends Sept. 9.

"It would be a great help if we could actually win," Francis said.

Honda's Promotional Video for Project Drive-In



Francis isn't the only one hoping for a miracle. Dozens of drive-ins across the United States are featured in the promotion. For some of them, the cost of a digital conversion is even more of a burden.

"To make this kind of conversion with three screens is like trying to buy another drive-in all over again," said Darci Wemple, who owns the El Rancho theater in Palatine Bridge, New York.

Francis said he hasn't been doing any fundraising, per se, but instead has been asking his customers to perhaps spend a little more at the snack bar.

"The way the model works is that the ticket booth money largely goes to film rental, so by going to the snack bar, that will help us finance or pay for digital projection," he said.

Drive-ins aren't the only places being forced to deal with the digital transition. Brick-and-mortar establishments, like Southeast Portland's Academy Theater, are feeling the pinch as well. The theater is using the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo for their fundraising effort.

Despite the high cost of conversion, Francis is excited about the change.

"There are going to be more options when I do convert," he said. "Like if I want to continue to run old films. I'm looking forward to playing around with that card - maybe finally run the Rocky Horror Picture Show or something like that."

And the picture quality will be better.

"You're taking away film itself," he said. "If you put a colored piece over a flashlight, or a gel or a red sheet of clear Mylar, you know it makes your flashlight a little dimmer. The film is gone and you're taking away a thing called the shutter. So the light is going right onto the screen from the projector."

"It'll just look a lot more amazingly high resolution, or so I hear," he added. "I think every drive-in that has done so (made the conversion) has said that."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.