Over the weekend, I wrote a story for The Cap Times on the precarious existence of many of America’s drive-in theatres. The future was already shaky for drive-ins (only about a tenth of the 4,000 to 5,000 drive-ins operating in the 1950s) still exist, and they now face an existential threat — digital cinema.
Most theaters have already switched from 35mm film to digital projection (in Madison, only the second-run Market Square and on-campus venues still show 35mm) as the studios make fewer and fewer film prints available. Digital looks better, it never degrades, and playing a film is as easy as pressing a button, unlike swapping and threading film reels.
But digital projectors also cost $80,000 to $100,000, and that cost has been prohibitive for many drive-ins. Now, as the summer season is over, studios have said they’re all but stopping 35mm prints in 2014, which could wipe a lot of drive-in theaters out. Honda attempted to draw attention to the problem with its projectdrivein.com contest, where fans got to vote for which drive-in theater got one of nine free projectors courtesy of Honda.
Luckily for Madison fans of retro al fresco cinema, our local drive-ins were ahead of the curve. Goetz Sky-Vu Drive In Monroe went digital last year, and Hi-Way Outdoor Theatre in Jefferson was one in the first in the nation to go digital back in 2010.