Nostalgia business continues at local drive-in theaters

The drive-in movie business in the Dayton area is not dead. In fact, owners of the Dixie Drive-In on North Dixie Drive said they are thriving.

Competition for movie-goers got tougher this year as drive-in theaters were forced to go to expensive digital projectors if they wanted to run first-run movies.

Three local drive-in theaters, all owned by Chakeres Theatres, chose not to open this summer because of the large expense — digital projectors range in price from $100,000 to $150,000.

The iconic grassy gravel lots, once fields of everlasting nostalgia for community members, will be empty at Melody Cruise-In in Springfield, the Skyborn Cruise-In in Fairborn and the Wilmington Drive-In this summer.

Chakeres Theatres did not intend to close these locations for the summer, according to general manager Mark Booth, but they were forced to do so because of the hardships associated with the digital revolution that has occurred in the film industry over the past three to four years. As 35-millimeter film reels have been pushed aside for digital film, drive-ins across the country simply have not be able to afford the transition.

Chakeres converted its Melody 49 theater in Clayton to digital, a switch that cost over $150,000 and it is open this summer.

“We did not want to do all four drive-ins at the same time,” Booth said.

Dixie Drive-In, located at 6201 N. Dixie Drive, has been in operation continuously since 1957. Since switching to digital two years ago, Dixie’s attendance has risen and its revenue has experienced over 30 percent growth, according to Greg Dove, president of Levin Service Company, which owns the outdoor theater.

He would not give specific revenue numbers.

“Three or four years ago, the film industry announced that they were going to be heading to all digital, and that they were going to be eliminating all film,” Dove said. “At the first notice of this we began discussing how we were going to move forward, and we began our research in switching over to digital.”

The change has been fruitful for Dixie Drive-In.

“It was quite an investment for us,” said Lisa Edwards, marketing director of Dixie Drive-In, “especially when you consider that a lot of these drive-ins used to be mom-and-pop, local things.”

Digital benefits

Although the initial purchase of the digitally compatible equipment can be a sizeable financial burden for drive-ins, there are many benefits that come with going digital, Dove said.

Dixie gets first-run movies, which draws customers who want to see the newest flicks at a low price. It costs just $8 per ticket for viewers 13 years and older, and $2 for those younger.

Conversely, there has been a significant decrease in the number of movies available in old-school film format, which has pushed drive-ins to go digital.

“If you didn’t go digital, you were going to have less choice to offer your customers,” Dove said when discussing the film transition period.

The picture is also sharper, and the audio, which is broadcasted through a radio frequency at Dixie so that listeners can listen in their car, rather than through outdoor speakers, is clearer as well in the digital format.

The switch to digital has also been easier on Dixie’s management, as they now deal less with bulky film reels and more with computers.

“With the 35-millimeter films, we’d have to put them on these giant platters, then there’d be multiple reels, and we’d have to splice all of those together to make one single movie. That would all have to be broken down and sent back, and you needed a professional to do that,” Dove said.

“Now, it’s programmed, and the manager of the drive-in goes in and he can put any trailers in between any of the movies that he wants to. There’s a tremendous amount of flexibility, and it’s incredibly easy to operate on a day-to-day basis.”

Dove claims that Dixie owns “one of the largest screens in the country.”

And even with the recent popularity of smartphones in today’s technologically driven world, Dixie’s revenue boom shows that some still think bigger is better.

“The initial fear that we had, that people would just be watching their little devices at home, really hasn’t panned out,” Dove said. “And we’re quite happy that it hasn’t happened.”

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