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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

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Digital Era Hits Drive-in Theaters

Hollywood film studios are set to switch from 35 millimeter film to digital by the end of the year.

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A digital revolution could threaten the existence of some of the last-standing memories of a once-booming industry: the drive-in movie theater.

Hollywood film studios are set to stop distributing movies on 35-millimeter films and convert entirely to digital by the end of the year -- a cost that could drive out some smaller theaters if they can’t finance the initial switch.

Although Juan Gonzales, the operations manager of the Vineland Theaters, says switching to digital equipment would cost them $80,000 per screen, or a total of $320,000, he’s optimistic for the change and ready to face his one and only choice.

“I don’t think we can remain open beyond 2013 if we do not convert,” he said. “We’re losing business because when we have great movies coming out on digital, people do not come to see them on 35 millimeter.”

Douglas Wellman, the Assistant Dean of Facilities and Operations at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, says there are benefits to trashing the reels.

“They’re very heavy, and they actually have to be physically delivered into a theater. They have to be removed, the reels have to be put up on the projectors… It was a lot of work that went into that.”

Although the digital switch could save studios up to a billion dollars in the long-run, preserving the legacy of the drive-in is the bigger concern for Rebecca Reynoso, who works at the Vineland Theater concession stand.

 “There’s a little bit of a history, I guess you could say,” she said.

Of the thousands of drive-in theaters that thrived in the 1950s, today less than 400 remain; still, Reynoso says the Vineland’s customers just keep coming back.

 “It’s nice to see them. It’s like seeing a relative you haven’t seen for a while, and you get to see them again. And they’re happy to see you, and you’re happy to see them.”

As far as she’s concerned, it’s a $320,000 cost to maintain a priceless legacy.

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