"Digital" was an alien word on July 15, 1947 — the day the Finger Lakes Drive-In opened.
For most, it wasn't a word with real-life implications. It was something a scientist might mutter in the kind of cheesy UFO flick outdoor moviegoers saw in droves in those days.
Today is different. Today, the word "digital" represents a very real crossroads for the Aurelius drive-in. As the movie industry moves toward digital projection, the 35 mm film inches closer and closer to obsolescence.
Finger Lakes Drive-In owner Paul Meyer is looking for the public's help securing the digital equipment that will soon be essential to the drive-in's operation, he said. He has entered the theater in Honda's Project Drive-In, a voting contest that will reward five winners with digital projectors, which typically cost about $75,000. Meyer has also set up a separate donation website at savefingerlakesdrivein.com.
I spoke with him about how much help the drive-in needs to go digital, the logistics of doing so and the possibility of closing if it can't:
Q. How urgent is this transition to digital for the Finger Lakes Drive-In?
A. That's what the talk is right now. The movie people don't know exactly when the last film reel is going to go out, but the talk is that it's imminent. They're going to send out new movies on digital. So my guess is that it's going to be by the end of this year.
Q. How have you been affected by this transition so far? Have 35 mm films become more difficult to get?
A. Well, it's more difficult to get movies in, in that oftentimes, we have to pay more money to have them ship farther to get to us. For the few places that are left playing 35 mm film, it's more difficult sharing these because they have to go longer distances. Sometimes I have to drive and pick them up in cities. And sometimes they're not available, or we have to wait longer to get them. It's like getting a VHS tape when DVDs were out. You still had a few on the shelf, but most of the selection is DVD format. For instance, the "Jobs" movie — that's not even out on 35 mm. It's not the biggest movie — all the big movies they still have on 35 mm. But it's going to happen sooner or later, where there's not any more 35 mm.
Q. What's the most effort you've had to put into getting a movie?
A. We've had them flown in from as far away as Ohio and Virginia. They fly them into Syracuse. There's a company called Sky Courier. They're like a special company just for the movie industry, for a few reasons. Some of the movies have a high possibility of being pirated, and some movies come to us in sealed, locked security bags, where we can't get the combination until right before the movie's supposed to be premiered. That's one thing I didn't know when I got into this. And they often send these movies under different titles. I remember last year, "The Dark Knight Rises," I believe that was under security seal and that had some code word on it. It'll be something like "Office Presentation and Speaking Skills: Seminar No. 2." I've driven to Buffalo and gone down to Elmira, but we have a broker out of New York City that arranges our films, so he easily figures out how to get them to us.
Q. And with digital projection, can they just send the movies to you, well, digitally?
A. That's possible. How it works is they send you an external hard drive like on a computer, so it's much easier for the movie company to make a copy. It's much quicker, it's much less expensive, and it doesn't weigh as much. A hard drive is a few pounds, and our movies are 85 pounds when you have 10 10- to 12-inch reels. So there's a lot more preparation, too. The average movie is eight reels, and each might be a thousand feet, and you have to tape each reel together, so it might be a mile long or so. A digital film is a lot easier. It's like putting in a movie at home.
Q. And is there a flip side to that? Any advantages film has that you'll no longer enjoy with digital?
A. I think they're a little brighter, possibly. I think quality's about the same; I don't think people see a dramatic difference. It's just the technology direction we're going in.
Q. So what would winning this contest mean to the drive-in and its digital changeover?
A. The issue is that there's probably 60 small-town drive-ins left in America that have the single screen, and only about 350 drive-ins in America total. In 1955 there used to be 5,000 drive-ins. So there's a lot less. One of the reasons is they're expensive. The projectors are much more expensive than inside theater projectors because they're much, much brighter and have to light up a much larger screen. And we only operate in the summer, so our season time isn't as long. There's probably about 50 drive-ins trying to win one of the five, so that would definitely help. We have a website, savefingerlakesdrivein.com, where people can donate money, and I'll use that toward the projector. We'll run that until the end of the year. And I suppose I'll continue to try to see if there's any other opportunities to get a projector. So other than that, I think I'll just have to think about this and review where I'm at and decide what to do. And I'll also take that information and consider when the last day of 35 mm will hit, which is an unknown, but it's inevitable. Is it possible we might have it a little more in the spring? My sense is that it's wrapping up at the end of the year.
Q. Does Honda actually give you the projector, or the money to buy it?
A. I think they're giving away the money needed to buy the projector — you'll have to buy the projector and be reimbursed up to $75,000.
Q. And if you don't win, what are the chances you'll have to consider closing the drive-in?
A. I can't put a percentage on it, but it is a possibility. If a situation comes about where they're only putting out digital films and we don't have a digital projector — we may have to close, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Q. Anything else you'd like to add?
A. One thing we haven't talked about is the importance of drive-ins to society. They're a unique animal in that they culminate many things that are precious to our society. We like to be entertained, we like automobiles, we like spending time with our families, and we like eating. So it's kind of a unique experience that really is not popular in any place around the world, except for America. You don't see a lot of drive-ins in Europe. We're really the only drive-in left in probably a 45-mile radius. It's a real value. And children under 4 are free. For 4 to 12, they're $3. Our popcorn and drinks — you can get a drink for a dollar. So it's nice for the common man who doesn't want to spend a lot of money and have an enjoyable evening.