As the night grew darker, a cold wind whipped across the asphalt expanse of the vintage Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre in Riverside, Calif. A howling gust banged open the door to the snack bar, where hot dogs glistened on metal spits and the black-and-white linoleum floor gleamed. Quentin Tarantino's “Django Unchained" flickered to life on the colossal screen — for an audience of eight cars.
This time of year is always slow at drive-in theaters, which have been struggling with declining attendance for decades. But it's not just cold weather that has made this a winter of discontent. The digital revolution is here, and that could mean lights out for many of the nation's 368 surviving drive-ins.
Hollywood is expected to stop distributing 35-millimeter film prints to all U.S. theaters later this year. The vast majority of indoor theaters — hardtops, in drive-in lingo — have already converted to digital projectors, but 90 percent of drive-ins have not, according to an industry trade group. Conversion costs of $70,000 or more per screen could be too expensive for many drive-ins.
The Rubidoux plans to convert to digital projection, but its owner says the switch will be a struggle for many others.
The drive-in market today is a shell of what it was in the late 1950s, when teens and big families in big cars found drive-ins a fun alternative to indoor theaters. At their peak, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins, accounting for 25 percent of the nation's movie screens. Today, that's down to 1.5 percent.
By the late 1980s, more than three-quarters of American drive-ins had closed as multiplexes proliferated. Urban sprawl and soaring land values led many to be bulldozed to make way for malls and other commercial developments.
The drive-ins that survived have been doing better in the past decade, spurred partly by cost-conscious families who can see double features or first-run movies at half the price of the hardtops, said National Association of Theatre Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran.
For younger audiences, there's the chance to travel back in time.
“My car's pretty roomy, and it's chill to sit there together," said Casey Welch, 19, who was at the Rubidoux Drive-In with girlfriend Jonnie Byrd.
In most of the country, drive-ins close for the winter. Some may not reopen this spring because of the high cost of digital conversion, said John Vincent Jr., the president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. He declined to speculate on the number that may close.
“It's a tough pill to swallow," Vincent said. He plans to spend $75,000 to convert the drive-in he owns on Massachusetts' Cape Cod.
The Rubidoux is owned by Los Angeles-based DeAnza Land & Leisure Corp. Huttinger, DeAnza's chief executive, said converting 21 screens at all six of his company's drive-ins would cost nearly $2 million.
Drive-ins have unique projection needs. The booth typically sits more than a football field away from the screen, so the projector needs a much more powerful bulb to carry the image. Booths with a digital projector also need to be retrofitted with special glass, more vents, stronger air conditioning and an Internet connection. Projectionists who used to put film onto reels will instead insert a jump-drive into a server the size of a refrigerator.
But many proprietors can't afford these upgrades.
The family of Gerry Herringer, owner of the Cottage View Drive-In in Cottage Grove, Minn., once owned 21 theaters in the Twin Cities. Converting his only remaining theater would cost Herringer about $75,000. Instead, he's selling the land to Wal-Mart.