BROADALBIN – At the end of last summer the owners of the Ozoner 29 Drive-In in Broadalbin and El Rancho Drive-In in Palatine Bridge were faced with a difficult choice – make the costly upgrade to digital projectors or go out of business.
“Last year in August, we really slammed into a brick wall. [Movie studios] just didn’t have film print availability. We had to close down before Labor Day because we couldn’t get anything new to show,” said Darci Wemple, who owns the two drive-ins with her husband Bill Wemple.
Darci said that the number of 35 mm film prints produced by the major movie studios her company contracts with has dwindled to such a small number that rural theaters have been squeezed out, as the limited number of film prints are in use by larger theaters.
Ed Caro, who owns the Malta Drive-In in Saratoga County, said the cost of producing physical film prints for wide-distribution movies had in recent years grown to as high $1,200 per print, which could add up to as high as $6 million per film, prompting the widespread switch to digital distribution. He said he converted his two-screen operation to digital three years ago at a cost of about $150,000.
“The studios have really forced everyone in the industry to convert to digital,” Caro said. “If you want to stay in the business of showing movies, you have to convert to digital; they aren’t going to give you a choice.”
Darci Wemple said her two drive-in theaters have a season that typically runs from May to September, with a special shorter horror movie season in the month of November. During the 20 to 25 weeks they open, her theaters will play about 20 new movie titles on three screens, two at the Ozoner 29 and one slightly larger screen at the El Rancho. She said the cost of converting the three screens to new digital projectors was a little less than $250,000, essentially the cost of buying two new drive-in theaters.
“What we did was we searched out the best priced new equipment and basically …. we managed to pull together between family, banks and remortgages enough to do the projection. It was either that or close down completely and our children really, really love the drive-in and they were heartbroken that we might actually close-down, so we did what we could and we’re keeping it.”
Darci Wemple said her business is hoping the new technology of digital projectors will help to usher in a new era for drive-in theaters.
“The experience is supposed to be so much clearer, where as you used to have a shutter and it would click and you’d have a little bit of a flicker. If you put them side by side, the digital looks more like an HD TV. It looks absolutely gorgeous,” she said.
In addition to new equipment, Darci Wemple said her customers can expect her son Devin Wemple her daughter Brianne “Breezy” Walrath and Brianne’s husband Taylor Walrath to take a more active role in the company.
Darci Wemple said Devin is looking into the possibility of hosting video game tournaments at the drive-in, because the digital projectors have the ability to project video-game play onto the big screens.
The switch to digital also opens up the possibility for more theme-oriented movie events at the two theaters because digital projectors can basically show any movie available on blue-ray disc, where as the old film technology required theaters to hunt-down rare film prints in order to show them.
“In the past when you wanted to show a retro title, you’d call the studio and they’d tell you they had one copy of it and it was booked already at another theater,” Caro said.
Darci Wemple said even with all the upgrades, the heart of the movie theater business model is still concessions. She said theater contracts with movie studios give most of the profits of the tickets for new movies to the studio.
“The snack bar is just as important as the tickets. We’re basically a restaurant that shows movies. Fifty years ago, the drive-ins could let people bring in their own food because they were showing b-rate movie and paying peanuts to the studios. Now we’re competing with the indoor theaters and we’re paying top-dollar because you’re getting a co-feature with it. We’re not trying to force people to pay outrageous prices; we keep the prices at the snack bar as low as possible to encourage people to patronize it.”