Drive-ins threatened by move to digital

Friday, July 5, 2013 | 1:33 p.m. CDT; updated 4:39 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 6, 2013
A couple watches the movie from the back of their car at the Sunset Drive In Theatre outside Mansfield, Ohio. The survival of drive-in theaters is being threatened as movie studios abandon film, forcing drive-in owners to switch to expensive digital equipment. Missouri has 13 drive-ins, including one in Moberly, and there are seven in Kansas.

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — A drive-in theater in eastern Kansas is threatened by the movie industry's costly switch to a digital format, but the community has been pitching in to help.

Owners of the Midway Drive-In Theater in Osawatomie say now that film distributors' move to digital is drawing closer, the Midway is struggling to make the transition. The Midway, which opened in 1953, is only equipped to use 35 mm film. Going digital requires new projectors that cost up to $100,000 per screen.


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Paul Dimoush, who runs the one-screen, 250-car drive-in with his wife Ann, told The Kansas City Star he hopes to raise about $30,000. They'll work out the rest with the bank, he said.

Community leaders in the town of about 4,500 people south of Kansas City are offering their support, organizing everything from charity golf tournaments to carhop fundraisers in a bid to keep the drive-in. So far, they've raised about $5,300 toward the $75,000 the Midway needs.

"We didn't think this community would pull together like they have," Ann Dimoush said. "But they have. ... Gosh, it's amazing how they've pulled together."

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association says the number of operating drive-in movie theaters in America has dwindled to 357, down from more than 4,000 in the late 1950s. Missouri has just 13 drive-in theaters, including one in Moberly, and Kansas has seven. There may be even fewer independently owned drive-ins a year from now, when digital is expected to be the norm.

"It's way too early for the association to speak to it," said D. Edward Vogel, a board member with the drive-in theater owners association. "But I can tell you that there isn't a board member or a member that isn't concerned that we could lose a lot." He estimates that only 50 or so of the 604 U.S. drive-in screens today show digital.

Many drive-ins are small scale venues run by individuals who don't have easy access to the $60,000 to $100,000 per screen necessary to equip the theater with digital technology.

"We want to do it," said Daryl Smith, who owns both the I-70 Four Screen in Kansas City, Mo., and the Twin Drive-In in Independence, Mo., and estimates conversion would cost $500,000. "We just have to figure out how to afford the transition."

Since starting the fundraising effort for the Midway, Councilwoman Tamara Maichel and the Dimoushes have been hearing a lot of stories of the theater's local significance.

"There's no doubt in my mind we'll be able to raise the money," Maichel said. "It might be tough at the end, but we'll find a solution to the problem. Somehow, some way, we'll work it out so we can have the drive-in next year."

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