With its new digital projector, the South Drive-In movie theater can continue dazzling Dodge Citians from the comfort of their bucket seats.
Next to the new projector, a giant black-clad science-fiction looking thing, sits the one it replaced, coated in grease and oil from decades of service. Nearby, hand-crank reel rollers sit attached to a work table under fluorescent lights, oil cans line shelf on the projection room's back wall. The theater's original lamp house sits on the floor out by the door.
The employees-only room at South Drive-In is like a working museum of outdoor movie projection history, but right then all eyes were on the box.
"It's supposed to start in three minutes," said Ron Cooper, the owner of the theater. A test run of the projector with the post-apocalyptic Tom Cruise movie "Oblivion" was ready to start at 7:30 p.m. and was scheduled to be out at precisely 9:52 p.m., the screen displayed.
"I hope it does what it's supposed to do."
Earlier the Coopers played music through the car-side speakers. "That sounds good, huh?" Pam asked. Along with the projector the sound was also upgraded. The theater will stop offering sound through AM, but the FM is now stereo.
Eventually a green bar trudged across the screen, hitting waypoints in its path that elicited mechanical clicks in the giant black-clad projector. The 6,000 square foot screen lights up green followed by a 60-foot version of actress Jennifer Lawrence's head advertising the next "Hunger Games" movie.
"Look at that picture," Ron said to his friend Earl "Larry" Lowry. "Is that awesome or what?"
And with that, South Drive-In will live to add another season to a family and Dodge City history that started in 1947, when Ron was 1 year old.
Without the digital projector, it, like many other drive-ins, would have had to close.
It's been increasingly difficult to get film prints, said Pam Cooper, as Hollywood has increasingly replaced spools of 35mm film with discs, Internet connections and digital storage drives. By 2014, it will be nearly impossible for theaters to get popular films on film.
The lack of available prints caused the theater to end the season a weekend early when the only options were rated R. South Drive-In is a family theater, Pam said, and she'd rather close a little early than run a movie families have to avoid.
"This is supposed to be a place for families," she said, "a place families can afford to come." At $14 a car, the 300-parking spot theater costs a fraction to attend than an indoor multiplex, and concession prices are less than half.
"I try not to gouge people," Ron said.
Page 2 of 2 - They haven't run the numbers to determine if prices will increase next year, though, "As long as my costs don't increase, I won't," Ron said.
The digital revolution has been hard on drive-ins. A typical digital projector can cost $75,000. With renovations and infrastructure improvements, some drive-ins have spent more than $100,000 to stay operational.
While movie producers have helped some smaller theaters make the switch by subsidizing the cost of the new hardware, drive-ins have been mostly left to deal with the digital takeover on their own.
As drive-ins can only show movies at night and typically close for the cold months, finding the cash for a digital projector can be difficult.
"We couldn't do it," Ron said. "Not without help."
He wouldn't specify how much United Wireless paid for the projector, not without the company giving an OK, but they did buy the projector, he said.
"They wanted to keep this place around."