How Drive-In Theaters Can Thrive: Go Digital

Drive-in theaters are facing their latest challenge: the digital era. Film studios are phasing out 35mm film prints, so theaters have to invest in digital projection equipment or turn out the lights.

*This story originally aired September 2, 2013.

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association is worried that some mom-and-pop operations might not be able to make the investment. But the group’s John Vincent says the ones who convert to digital find some technical advantages.

“Cause the outdoor screens, you can only get them so bright with 35mm film before you burn the film. But that limitation is gone and the new projectors provide a fantastic picture and here at my theater, the brightness doubled between film and digital.”

There are still about 350 drive-ins left, and we have one in the Houston area. The Showboat Drive-In is a family-run theater on FM 2920 near Hockley, and it made the switch to digital last year. Chris Rumfolo says they’re filling the lots for both screens every weekend.

“It is a totally different experience than going to a walk-in theater. Whenever we were kids, the whole family got loaded up, the kids put on their pajamas and piled us all in the back seat and I don’t ever remember making it through both movies! It was such a fun experience because you could, the whole family could go and it wasn’t expensive. It was also a great date night. I mean, you were with a crowd of people but you were alone because you’re in your own car.”

Rumfolo says the first hurdle in opening the Showboat was finding suitable land.

“Took us about two years to find enough property that was in a good spot, because you don’t want to be close to anything (where) you don’t have outside lights. It’s about 34 acres here. Whenever we bought it, it was a hayfield. So my husband and my father-in-law and my two sons pretty much built it from the gound up.”

Early drive-ins had speakers you hung on the window, but now most broadcast the soundtrack through low-power FM stations.

“Your car stereo is wonderful for sound. You know, the better your stereo, the better your sound. And on a Saturday night it gets pretty crowded in here and you’ve got some great surround sound with everybody’s radio turned on. You don’t even have to turn yours on part of the time, there’s so much going on around you!”

Where’s the best place to park? Chris’ son Joe runs the projectors.

“To me, it’s kind of like a walk-in theater. You don’t want to be right in the front row, ’cause you’ll make your neck sore, and you don’t want to be all the way in the back. So if you can get right in the middle, you pretty much get the best of everything.”

“On Saturday nights they start lining up usually anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before the gates actually open. They come in for dinner, get their burgers and they eat their dinner before the movie starts. The kids are hanging out on the playground and we pretty much got a crowd from the time those gates open until they all leave at the end of the night!”

D. Edward Vogel with the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association — also a theater owner — says some things never change.

“I actually, last week — it doesn’t happen often — I had somebody sneak in the trunk. That doesn’t happen often! It’s a very dangerous thing to do.”