Commonwealth Journal

December 26, 2012

Drive-in theaters face digital challenge

Owners vow to keep 27 Drive-in open despite cost

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to stay in business. I assure you 27 Drive-in is not going to shut down.”
Harry Roaden was emphatic. He was responding to questions about media reports that the cost of conversion to digital projectors is causing many of the some 600 remaining drive-in theaters in the United States to cease operations.
Roaden and his wife, Brenda, doing business as Roaden Enterprises, own drive-in theaters in Somerset and Georgetown. Located on U.S. 27 between Somerset and Burnside, 27 Drive-In has two screens and 700 parking spaces. The Georgetown drive-in has seven screens, already equipped with digital projectors.
“It costs $70,000 per screen to install digital projectors,” Roaden noted. “I may have to come around and ask some of you guys for a loan,” he laughed, “but I’ll do whatever I have to do to keep my business open. After all, you can’t build a drive-in theater for $140,000.”
Roaden is skeptical of news stories about the demise of 35 mm film. “No film company has told me we won’t be able to get 35 mm film,” he said.
News media in some large metropolitan areas are reporting it will be difficult to obtain 35 mm film by early to mid 2013. The greatest impact of conversion to digital is that studios and distributors can save millions on the cost of film prints and shipping fees. No longer will they have to spend $1,500 to ship 35 mm prints in 80-pound film canisters. Digital Cinema Package hard drives cost about $150 to ship.
Roaden said at one time there were about 6,000 drive-in theaters in the United States. The number has dwindled to about 600, he said, disputing media reports there is less than 400  drive-ins left. Closest drive-in theater to Somerset is at Stanford, he noted.
Roaden is firmly convinced 35 mm film will continue to be available. Therefore, he said he doesn’t plan to change to digital projectors at 27 Drive-In until he can no longer get 35 mm film. 
“But when it’s not available, I’ll change ... 27 Drive-In will not close down,” he reiterated.
Matter of fact, Roaden says he is looking for somebody to put in a restaurant in front of his theater. “I’m ready for them as soon as they are ready,” he said, indicating he would like to have Olive Garden or another high end dining place.
The Roadens opened 27 Drive-In Theater in 1967. “I sold it and bought it back in 1978,” he said. The theater’s website expresses appreciation for a wonderful 2012 season and welcomes moviegoers to return in Spring 2013.