QUEENSBURY ♦ Brett Gardner doesn’t want the Glen Drive-in Theater to meet its end on his watch.
His grandfather opened the business in 1958, at the peak of drive-in theaters’ popularity. Brett has taken over operations from his father, John, who took over from his father in 1990.
“Me and my family have been in this business for a long time,” Brett said, adding his focus these days is just on providing the best drive-in movie experience possible, “so we can get people in here, and they can have a good time, and we can make a little bit of money.”
But the Glen Drive-in, which has survived both in spite and because of a reliance on old-fashioned entertainment, is at an invest-or-die crossroads.
It’s not alone.
“Every single movie theater in the Adirondack Park could be closed in a year,” said Naj Wikoff, coordinator of the Lake Placid Film Forum.
Wikoff is intimately aware of the plight of independent theater owners in the North Country because he’s helped organize them into the North Country Theater Alliance, a group of 13 theaters, with a total of 37 screens, facing the digital deadline.
The crisis comes as the six major movie companies, including Disney and MGM, which long ago began converting to digital movie technologies, move toward eliminating production of movies on 35 mm film.
It’s not a new trend. Most movie theaters nationwide have converted to digital projectors and sound systems.
But the big movie houses are still supplying film to mom-and-pop theaters that didn’t have the capital to upgrade. That ends next year — or by 2014 at the latest.
After that point, all movies will be provided on hard drives that must be plugged into new projectors.
The North Country Theater Alliance has filed an application with Empire State Development for a grant to help buy the digital projection equipment for its member theaters.
For Gardner, the price tag is likely to be around $150,000 — $75,000 for each of his business’ two screens. That includes the cost of equipment and installation, as well as improvements to the projection booths, which will have to be climate-controlled. Digital projection devices are computers that require cool temperatures to function properly.
It’s an investment that comes with an unclear benefit. Gardner said movies at the drive-in should be a bit brighter, and sound quality should improve, but it’s unlikely to be a big enough impact for the average moviegoer to notice, he said. That makes it tough to pass along the cost.
“My customers enjoy coming here with the prices we have,” Gardner said. “If I have to raise prices, I’m not sure what that’s going to do.”
Wikoff said the alliance is hoping to secure a large enough grant to pay for three-quarters of the estimated $7 million needed to convert all of the alliance members’ screens. It’s also hoped that, by pooling their resources, the alliance will be able to strike a better deal with the equipment makers, Wikoff said.
Before he learned of the Theater Alliance’s effort, Gardner was planning to seek financing for the upgrade.
There are financing programs by which the movie houses — which will save money by not sending out film and which still get paid when their movies are shown on small-town screens — help pay for a theater’s first digital movie projector over time, but those programs have drawbacks, said Wikoff.
“One of the problems with this free financing is ... you have to up-front the money anyway,” Wikoff said. “You have to get the loan to buy all that stuff, and then they give you back the money over time.”
In the meantime, the theater owners’ new corporate partners may decide they want a bigger say in how the new equipment is used and promoted, Wikoff said.
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“The distributor wants to control everything you show,” he said. “Again, they’re going to want their 70 or 90 percent of ticket sales. So that leaves these movie theaters in this serf-like condition.”
As it is, independent movie theaters rely mainly on concession sales to stay in business, Wikoff said.
Gardner was aware of the pitfalls of the movie house-backed financing, he said. But it’s an option he has to consider, unless the state grant comes through or he’s able to secure better financing terms elsewhere.
Gardner was planning some financing discussions when he learned of the North Country Theater Alliance’s efforts, he said.
It was Queensbury Supervisor Dan Stec who got him involved with the group.
Stec, who is running for a state Assembly seat, was in the town of Jay for a campaign-related visit when he learned of the Theater Alliance, he said.
“They had a resolution at their Town Board meeting to support (the Theater Alliance’s) application for a grant,” Stec said.
When he reached out to Gardner, Stec learned the Glen Drive-in was facing a similar challenge, and Stec worked with Wikoff to get the Glen Drive-in added to the Theater Alliance.
There’s a lot at stake, Wikoff said. An economic impact report published in the spring by Americans for the Arts indicated theaters in New York’s North Country contribute to about $11.4 million in spending each year, for a sales tax impact of about $800,000. That’s based on average spending by theater patrons, Wikoff said.
Together, the 13 theaters involved in the Theater Alliance also employ about 110 people, mostly part-time, entry-level jobs that appeal to younger workers or second-income seekers.
The Glen Drive-in hires 10 to 12 part-time workers each season and attracts about 45,000 patrons each year, Gardner estimated.
His is one of 28 drive-in theaters in the state, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. Nationwide, there are a total of 368 drive-in theaters in operation, down from a total of 433 in 2002, according to the association. The year the Glen Drive-in opened, 1958, is considered the high watermark for drive-in popularity, when there were 4,068 drive-in theaters in operation nationwide.
John Vincent, president of the national association, said about 10 percent of the country’s drive-in theater screens have been converted to digital technology. The North Country Theater Alliance was the only group Vincent had heard of that was seeking government grant funding to help with the conversion, he said.
“Nearly every theater owner is facing the same problem,” Vincent said. “And it’s exasperated in the drive-in situation because, for one thing, most of us are seasonal. We’re only making money two or three months out of the year. And because of our large screens, we have to buy the most expensive equipment.”
As with any new technology, there are also questions about ongoing maintenance costs associated with digital projectors. According to some industry estimates, the computer-driven machines likely have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years. In that time, newer technology would likely have made the old machines obsolete, and movie houses are likely to have undergone yet another format change.
And repairs to the projectors aren’t as simple as machining a broken sprocket, gear or belt. Most theaters that convert to digital technology also need to establish maintenance contracts or arrangements, since any non-expert tampering can damage the projectors’ security protocols, which are aimed at keeping movies from unauthorized use.
It was unclear this week what the Theater Alliance’s grant chances are. Empire State Development has only had the application for a week, Wikoff said.
Still, the fact the grant would help 13 theaters — spread among three different economic development districts — gives the effort a fighting chance, Stec said.
“This is not only a multi-county application, but now it crosses these regional economic development council boundaries,” he said.