Digital Drive-In Doom!

Disruptive technology, put simply, is innovation that transforms things so completely that everybody has to adjust. It can render entire industries obsolete or force everyone to upgrade their personal equipment. Holding out against disruptive change is hard, but sometimes it’s even harder to adapt.

I spent this past weekend in Vandergrift, PA to attend a 2-night Peter Cushing film festival at a drive-in. There are very few of these theaters remaining, and they’re staring at a deadline that threatens to finish many of them off once and for all. The studios are planning to go digital-only next year.

Digital is great for showing movies. There’s no “print” as such to break and decay1. Storage is much smaller and easier. The definition is crisp. There are probably enormous benefits for 3D.

There’s just the little matter of the roughly $75K needed to upgrade to a digital projector.

Drive-ins have a limited revenue season — many in the northern states only operate during summer — and like indoor theaters they make most of their money from concessions. So basically we’re looking at a snack bar that only operates for a few hours a day, during four months a year, needing to come up with tens of thousands in additional profit or give up on showing current movies.

I suppose they could get loans, but a bank is going to want to know how the hell profits will increase enough to pay the loan back. It’s not as though going digital is likely to bring in more customers. It’s simply necessary to not lose more business when the new releases stop being available on film.

It’s a sad situation. People who run small drive-ins stand to lose their businesses. As a culture, we stand to lose an enjoyable piece of our living history. That’s the way of disruptive technology. There’s nothing unique about the fate of drive-ins; I’ll just happen to notice this loss. With the pace of change accelerating, we’re all going to experience these disruptions many times in our lives. (Anyone else have to replace their LP collections?)

Through a 3rd-hand source I learned that the studios may relent on the hard deadline, or at least push it back. It would make sense; if there are fewer screens, there is less money to be made. More time might actually help. The drive-in I was at has raised a significant portion of the upgrade cost through fundraisers, but they still have a long way to go.

If there’s real hope in this case, it may lie ultimately in nostalgia. The mere act of watching a movie at a drive-in is antiquated. Who’s to say if showing older movies won’t increase attendance? Double-bills of famous mid-century films like “Giant” or “The Blob” could be a retro draw. See the movies your parents watched, as they watched them!

You never know. Revival screenings might just pay for the ability to show new movies going forward.

1. There are still ways to render a digital “print” useless, but let’s just agree that the rate of loss is much lower.


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