These are tough times for small town movie theaters and drive-in movies.
Already under pressure from on-demand films on cable, and a dwindling numbers of customers as the population of these towns decrease, theater owners have struggled for years. Boarded up theaters are a common sight in many of the communities along Highway 83.
As for drive-in movies, their heyday has long passed. There were once drive-ins all along Route 83 from Westhope, North Dakota, all the way down to Brownsville, Texas.
Today, only two Highway 83 towns have drive-ins, Abilene, Texas’ Town and Country, which is a few blocks east of the 83 bypass, and the Wes-Mer, right on 83 between Weslaco and Mercedes, Texas (Pictured above). There are none remaining along 83 in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota.
And now something new is threatening these theaters: the switch from film to digital projection.
It costs approximately $88,000 to install one digital projector, which the big Hollywood movie studios expect the theater owners to pay. The big movie chains can do this. Small business owners just getting by on popcorn sales cannot. The sad part is that the switch saves the studios a lot of money in distribution costs, but there is little benefit for the theater owners who have to pay for the new technology.
Recently, one of the last remaining drive-ins in North Dakota, the Lake Park Drive-in in Williston was torn down. The owner couldn’t afford to convert over to digital, and the season for outdoor movie watching is too short that far north, according to press reports.
There is a new model emerging, and Oakley, Kansas, on Highway 83 is showing the way. The town bought the Palace Community Theater in 2003 and it is run as a nonprofit, with seniors from the local high school taking over management each year. The town gets to keep its theater, and local students learn valuable skills running a small business. It found the money to convert to digital in 2009, its
In Lexington, Va., Hulls Drive-in was also taken over by the community, and is run as a nonprofit. Local volunteers run the operation, and it takes tax deductible donations. It is the only non-profit drive-in in America.
Towns at risk of loosing their move theaters can look to these two nonprofits as examples.
The Honda car company recently launched a campaign Project Drive-In to help save a few drive-ins.
Fans can vote online for their favorite outdoor theaters that are at risk of closing because of the switch to digital. Honda will pay for the top five’s conversion costs.
Sadly, there are dozens of drive-ins competing for the five slots and are at risk of closing. But I’m happy to report that the Wes-Mer and the Town and Country are not on the list.
The closest is the Pheasant Drive-In in Mobridge, South Dakota.
Here is the owner’s plea for votes on the Honda website.
“We operate the Pheasant Drive-In in Mobridge SD. The Pheasant Drive-In was built in 1960. We have been operating it since 1976. Families come from miles around to come to one of the few remaining drive-in theatres. Patrons love our low prices of $5.00 for adults and kids 12 and under are free. A storm tore our screen down June 7, 2012. Our savings for digital conversion had to be used to rebuild the screen. We have survived all the changes throughout the years in the movie industry and would like to be able to survive this digital transition.”
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Stew Magnuson is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.