DRIVE-IN MOVIES: Upgrade Or Go Out Of Business

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Movie studios say they’ll stop distributing their product on physical reels of film, forcing theaters across the nation to convert to expensive digital projectors.

While some small and specialty theaters are struggling with the change, the 61 Drive-In Theatre in Jackson County says they won’t be left in the dark.

During the height of drive-in movie theaters in the late 50’s and early 60’s, some 4,000 outdoor screens dotted America’s landscape. Today, that amount is one tenth of what it used to be, and each theater faces the same dilemma: whether to spend tens of thousands of dollars upgrading to meet digital standards or close their doors for good.

Jackson County’s 61 Drive-In Movie Theatre sits just off US Highway 61, about five miles south of Maquoketa.

On Wednesday afternoon, the theater’s general manager Jack Jones was busily getting ready for opening weekend.

“Now we’re putting things away and getting things organized and making a list of, ‘Okay, what did we forget? What don’t we have? What do we need to get before Friday?'” he said, standing behind the concession counter.

This year, in addition to the usual re-stocking of popcorn buckets and the candy counter, folks at the 61 Drive-In Theatre made a big change, bringing in a brand new digital projector to accommodate the film industry’s switch to digital films.

“Digital replaces film!” 61 Drive-In owner Dennis Voy said. “No more will there be a film brought in here on cans and taking the heads and the tails off and splicing it together, getting it ready for the movie. We won’t have to worry about film breaks anymore, scratches on the film, and the clarity and brightness of the screen is going to be much better than it’s ever been before.”

The digital projector boasts a 4,000 Watt bulb and the ability to play a film with a click of a mouse. Plus, the actual digital film comes in a container the size of a lunchbox.

“Sure beats lugging around 60-pound cans of film,” Jones said with a relieved smile.

Voy invested no small sum of money in a digital projector for the theater, but the drive-in, open just half the year, is not his main livelihood. He owns a Maquoketa radio station and three-screen indoor movie theater.

It begs the question: Why invest in the digital upgrade?

“It was either making the conversion or going out of business,” he said,” and we have too many drive-in theater fans in the eastern Iowa area that enjoy this theater.”

There are four drive-in theaters left in Iowa. Besides 61 Drive-In you can catch a flick outdoors in Grandview, Newton, and Spirit Lake.

Thanks to our sister station KWWL for this story.