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Drive-in theaters could be saved by digital projection

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drive-in theater (flickr thomas hawk)
drive-in theater (flickr thomas hawk)

Drive-in theaters may seem like relics from a bygone era, but the film industry is doing its best to push them into the 21st century. This week, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and Cinedigm, a leading digital equipment maker, announced plans to help drive-in theaters make the transition to digital projection systems by offering funding, installation, and operations support.

While many traditional movie theaters have already transitioned from 35mm to digital, most drive-in theaters have been slower to adapt, mostly due to steep overhead costs that independent owners often struggle to meet. According to NATO, digital projectors are currently installed at just 10 percent of all outdoor theaters in the US. And as studios begin to phase out traditional film, many worry that drive-ins may be left behind.

A push toward modernity

To bridge this gap, NATO plans to extend an existing Cinedigm program that uses virtual print fees — expenses paid by studios to implementation companies — to cover the costs of digital deployment. Cinedigm has already struck VPF agreements with major theater chains across the US and Canada, helping some 276 operators to install more than 12,200 digital screens.

The idea, according to Alison Choppelas, Cinedigm's VP of Business Affairs, is to help bring a cultural institution up to speed with a fast-changing industry. "By providing drive-in theaters digital content, including studio feature films, indie films, concerts and cultural events, this important piece of Americana will be an even more engaging gathering spot for the communities they serve," Choppelas said in a statement.