Digital technology may force some drive-in theaters to close

Warm spring evenings are raising the curtain on another drive-in theater season in the Carolinas, but Rick Stinnett worries the sun may be setting on part of his family movie business.

Hollywood is forcing owners to spend big bucks converting from 35 mm to digital projection.

This spring, Stinnett said he sank $100,000 to remodel and convert the projection room at his Sunset Drive-in on U.S. 74 west of Shelby to digital.

But it’s a different situation at his Bessemer City Kings Mountain Drive-in. An outdoor projection facility has been used there for decades and Stinnett will have to build a new dust-free, air-tight projection room from scratch. Whether he can afford the project depends on how well the drive-in does in coming months.

The theater can accommodate about 400 cars, and if business isn’t strong, he may have to close.

“This is something I’ve done all my life,” said Stinnett, 57. “I don’t know what else I’d do. We’ll see if we can survive.”

Currently, there are six drive-in theaters in North Carolina and three in South Carolina, according to a trade association.

The drive-in era peaked in 1958 with 4,063 theaters across the country. The website DriveinMovie.com listed North Carolina as one of the top 10 drive-in movie states in the ’50s with more than 200 theaters.

An annual ritual

Like a night out at the ballgame, drive-ins offered escape from the heat of homes without air conditioning. Many moviegoers brought blankets and sat on the ground or on car hoods.

Now, for many, going to drive-in theaters is still an annual warm-weather ritual. The experience brings back memories for people like Mary Ann Huffstetler, 75, of Cherryville. She remembers going to the Diane 29 Drive-in west of Gastonia in the 1950s. As she and her date waited for the movie to start, a gentle summer breeze drifted in the open car window along with the sweet smell of honeysuckle.

Huffstetler hopes drive-ins stick around “so my grandchildren can take their dad and have a wonderful time like we did in the ’50s.”

Drive-in fare over the years ranged from teen “beach party” films like “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” to double-bill horror movies “Bloodsuckers” and “Spider Baby,” aka “The Liver Eaters,” which carried the warning “not for people who faint easy.”

The original “Godzilla” stalked drive-in screens along with “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” and “The Thing.”

Charlotte’s popular drive-ins included the Viking Twin on Freedom Drive and The Thunderbird off South Tryon. The Diane South on Independence Boulevard was North Carolina’s oldest drive-in.

Gastonia’s Diane, which could accommodate 1,400 cars, had an 80-foot-tall screen and was the largest drive-in in the Carolinas and Virginia. It closed in 1986.

More than 1,000 drive-ins closed between 1978 and 1988, but outdoor theaters experienced a rebound in the 1990s.

Going digital

“Drive-ins are a great concept,” said John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. “When they’re rediscovered people say, ‘Hey, what a great way to spend a night with the family.’ Digital is outstanding and brings even more people in.”

Vincent said about half of the nation’s 357 drive-ins have converted to digital projectors and “large numbers continue to convert.”

For movie studios, it’s a huge savings. Vincent said each 35 mm print costs the studios $2,000.

“How long 35 mm will be around is anybody’s guess,” Vincent said. “But everybody feels this is definitely the last year. None of us like the cost of digital. It’s a very tough pill to swallow for some. And some, undoubtedly, will close.”

David Robertson, who owns the Badin Road Drive-in Theater in Albermarle, the Eden Drive-in Theater and Kingsway Cinema indoor theater in Eden, said he’s borrowed $700,000 to $800,000 to convert those venues to digital. And he has one more left to do – the 1929-vintage Rockingham Theater in Reidsville.

“I believe it’ll pay for itself,” Robertson said,“if the projectors last.”

$15 a carload

In 1949, Rick Stinnett’s parents, Gay and Mozelle Stinnett, opened the Bessemer City Kings Mountain Drive-in. Rick Stinnett, the youngest of eight children, worked there in an operation that included a restaurant with a full menu.

The family’s drive-in theater network later would include the Monte Vista in Gastonia, the Sunset near Shelby, Tri-City in Rutherford County and the Belmont Drive-in.

In 1983, Rick Stinnett said he sold the Belmont Drive-in to Bill and Peggy Lawing. Their son and current owner, David Lawing, recently told the Gaston Gazette that the theater’s future was uncertain.

The drive-in hasn’t been open this year and Lawing couldn’t be reached for comment.

When Stinnett converted the Sunset Drive-in to digital, he tried to find a home for the old 35 mm projector, which still worked perfectly. But with no takers, he hauled it to a scrapyard.

Stinnett thinks digital is great. The new projector at Sunset Drive-in puts out 6,500 watts of light compared to 3,000 watts from the 35 mm projector. He described the on-screen picture as “unbelievable.”

But getting it there isn’t cheap. He’s raised the price at the Kings Mountain Bessemer City from $10 to $15 per carload – and hopes to hang on long enough to make the digital switch.

“I don’t want to close,” Stinnett said. “But we’ll see how the season goes. We’ll see if the drive-in pays its way.”

Researcher Maria David contributed to this story

DePriest: 704-868-7745

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