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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Clark and the Murphy families set up for a double feature at the Redwood Drive-In in West Valley City on Monday, August 19, 2013.
Drive-ins go digital, but some things never change

Drive-in » A vintage pastime turns a new chapter with switch to digital

By Annie knox

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 23 2013 12:21 pm • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:33 pm

West Valley City » As kids, Travis Cornaby and his siblings piled into the family Ford with homemade popcorn and fistfuls of candy, then headed to the Redwood Drive-in to catch the "The Pink Panther," "Young Frankenstein" and "Caveman."

They usually crashed by the end of the first feature.

At a glance

Salt Lake City: An iconic backdrop

In 1958, Life Magazine photographer J.R. Eyerman captured the feel of the midcentury drive-in with a photograph he took in Salt Lake City. It shows a congregation of cars pulled up to a towering screen with Charlton Heston playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”

For the shoot, Everman lured dozens of local college students to the showing of the 1956 film “ … And God Created Woman” featuring Brigitte Bardot, said his daughter Kathryn Marshall. He chose Utah because he wanted a rural drive-in surrounded by mountains, she said.

For the photo that was actually published, Everman swapped Heston’s image for Bardot’s.

The iconic picture “engages us. We smile a little bit, and we’re touched by it,” Marshall said. Plus: “The idea that he’d come up and run Brigitte Bardot for the Mormons was pretty funny.”

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On a recent August evening, Cornaby pulled up to the open-air theater with Aimee, his wife, and their two children, Gracie, 12, and Brenyn, 14.

An FM radio station replaced the speaker boxes he remembered from childhood. And four screens glowed instead of just one.

"Besides that, I think it’s exactly the same," said the 43-year-old father. "It’s great to see that it’s still around after all these years."

Digital conversion » Families, sweethearts and others liken the drive-in to an old pal who hasn’t changed much in the past few decades. But nationwide, the outdoor venues are undergoing some pricey, nonelective surgery: switching from film to digital.

Studios and other entities along the distribution line are phasing out the old film reels, replacing them with blocky, metallic hard drives.

Drive-in owners have no choice but to shut down the old film projectors, some with midcentury parts, and buy new digital versions, which cost about $70,000 each. Some drive-ins, including several in Utah, have been unable to shoulder the hefty price and have dimmed the lights for good.

"It’s a big hit," said Brent Coleman, owner of the still-going Riverdale Motor Vu drive-in, near Ogden.

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Coleman is one of many owners across the nation who found that hosting weekend swap meets helps cover the cost. It’s something that has helped the Redwood Drive-in afford the conversion to digital as well.

But for dozens of smaller, family-run drive-ins with only a screen or two, it now makes more sense to sell the land and get out of the game.

Comeback kid » In the 1950s, about 4,000 drive-ins operated nationwide, drawing audiences by the acre and bringing in the bulk of studio revenues. But most have closed as cities expanded and moviegoers turned to walk-in theaters. There are now fewer than 400 drive-ins in the U.S.

The switch to digital could fortify drive-ins by allowing the outdoor theaters to broadcast concerts and other shows or events, such as the Super Bowl, said D. Edward Vogel, spokesman for the United Drive-in Theaters Association and operator of a Maryland drive-in.

"The sky’s the limit," Vogel said, noting that he didn’t know too many indoor theaters "that would want people drinking indoors and yelling and screaming and throwing trash at the screen."

It wouldn’t be the first drive-in revival, said Frank Huttinger, a Southern California drive-in operator and owner of the Redwood. In the 1990s, a slew of animated Disney flicks, such as "The Lion King," helped draw families back to the open-air showings.

This summer, the National Association of Theater Owners and some movie studios are helping some drive-ins cover the cost of the digital switch.

Others are pledging to help, too. Carmaker Honda, for example, is promising to pay for five theater conversions under a recently announced program.

But the outdoor venues face other hurdles, like diminished crowds and light from nearby convenience stores, shopping malls and roadways. In addition to the new projectors, other costs have risen in recent years.

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