May 15, 2013 11:51 PM by Jeanette Trompeter

Drive-in theatres upgrade to survive and thrive in digital world

They're kind of like martinis. They're coming back in vogue...big-time. I'm talking about drive-in theatres. As a generation of people longs to relive memories of childhood and create new ones with THEIR children, drive-in movies are making a comeback.

As Victoria Johnson showed us tonight in her report on KSBY, there is a fraction of drive-in theatres as there used to be (about 400 compared to 4000 in their hey-day). The ones that are still around need to upgrade to keep showing first-run movies. Hollywood is going to stop making 35-millimeter movies, and that means theatres need to invest tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade their equipment.

A Santa Barbara drive-in is leading the charge, installing the first all-digital upgrade.
"Digital cinema will revolutionize the drive-in experience by providing a quantum leap forward in the quality of the picture. The difference will be spectacular," said Nancy Crane, District Manager for West Wind. "It will also allow us to present content such as concerts, sports events and other non-traditional features."

Crane says West Wind's investment in digital technology is in response to a 43 percent increase in its drive-in business during the past four years. She says business at conventional theaters has been roughly flat during the same period.

West Wind is the nation's largest operator of drive-in theaters. In the last five years, it has reopened two drive-in theatres, one in Concord, CA and the one in Santa Barbara. Crane says that's because it's seen such success at it's six other locations in California, Arizona and Nevada. "Movie-goers are rediscovering the comfort, value and fun of these theaters," Crane said. "With our digital projector, our customers can still enjoy the nostalgic experience of a drive-in movie but with a crystal clear, absolutely perfect picture on a screen that dwarfs those at indoor theatres."

Other technological advances have changed the the drive-in experience some. For instance, the audio now comes through an FM signal beamed to your car at many theatres, including West Wind Drive-Ins. That means you can listen to the movie on your car stereo, portable radio or FM-enabled mp3 player. Some still have speakers mounted on poles, but in many cases, they are for looks only.

General admission to first-run, double features at West Wind theatres is $7.25, while kids five to 11 are $1, and kids four and under are free. Other drive-ins along the central coast have similar pay structures.



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