From steamed-up sedans to sneaking people into the show in the trunk of a vehicle, going to the movies at a drive-in is truly a unique experience.
But like many forms of entertainment the drive-in theatre has been replaced by new technology, in this case, large, climate-controlled theatres that offer 3D and surround sound.
The Shamrock Drive-In, in Killarney, is one of only three drive-ins left in the province, but owner Joanne Struss admits this summer could be the first time in a long time the theatre doesn’t open to show movies.
“The cost to move to digital has just grown astronomically,” said Struss, who purchased the business two years ago with her husband Darren.
Struss said when they first purchased the Shamrock Drive-In, they expected the conversion to cost anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 to upgrade to the new digital projectors. At last count that number has swelled to around $80,000 as film companies have quit issuing movies in the 35mm format and have gone strictly digital.
“We’re excited about digital,” Struss said. “It will give us such a beautiful picture ... and we’ll still be able to incorporate our speaker sound, so we’re excited to do it, but I don’t think it will be this summer.”
Struss admits it will be difficult if the drive-in is forced to take a year’s absence from showing pictures and hopes that some sort of an arrangement with movie companies can be worked out to even show older movies that were still made with the 35 mm technology.
“I’m going to miss it if we have to take a year off and it’s concerning whether or not you’ll be forgotten,” Struss said. “It will be disappointing too for the people who love to come. For some people that is their weekend thing to do and you’re so thankful for those people. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we’re up and running, but it has to be something we can financially handle.”
Struss said it has been more and more difficult for small theatres to afford the rising costs of renting movies to show at theatres.
“If we have to pay their regular fees, we would be paying people to come to the drive-in,” Struss said.
In most cases, if a movie does well Struss pays a higher percentage of her gate to the movie company. Conversely, if the movie fails, she still owes a minimum amount that at times is more than the gate itself.
While the rental fees pose a problem, so do the constraints that are inherent in the drive-in business. Struss can only show movies seasonally, relies on good weather and can’t begin shows untill much later in the summer months due to extended daylight.
That makes it difficult to combat rising costs, and couple that with the digital conversion, and Struss might not have a choice but to take a year off.
“If we could play movies all year round and have the same number of people come out as they do in the summer it would be viable,” Struss said.
But it’s also something she’s not willing to give up on without a fight.
“When I was a young girl it was a real treat to go to the drive-in,” Struss said. “It didn’t happen often, but you got to stay up late, which was exciting on it’s own. There is something wonderful watching a movie outside on the big screen.”
“People enjoy coming because it is a drive-in,” Struss said. “They want the drive-in experience.”
Struss said she has been in contact with other drive-in owners that face the same problem.
Killarney, Morden and Flin Flon are the only places left to see a drive-in movie in Manitoba and Struss said some community members have volunteered to start fundraising, but she’s not sure how she feels about it.
“A lot of people have asked us to fundraise, but it’s a strange thing to fundraise for a privately owned business,” Struss said. “It feels strange to us and people tell us we’re a community commodity.”
Ideally she said, “we want people to support us by just coming to the drive-in and getting that experience. And a lot of wonderful people already do.”