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Drive-ins driving to survive digital age

Film to be phased out, fix costs $89,000

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Keep hope alive, some Manitoba drive-in movie theatre owners are saying.

The Stardust Drive-In in Morden and the Shamrock Drive-In in Killarney, both on Highway 3, are scrambling to try to raise funds to buy digital projectors so they can reopen next year.

The movie industry is phasing out film by the end of this year, making drive-in theatres' projectors obsolete. Drive-ins are particularly vulnerable because their business is seasonal, making it more difficult to justify a digital projector, which costs nearly $100,000.

In Morden, local people threw a Steak, Spud and Sud night recently and raised $5,000 for the Stardust. The Nelson and Freund families who own the Stardust raised another $4,400 this summer holding car washes and selling Save the Stardust T-shirts that depict a movie screen under the stars.

"We have had such fantastic community support. They don't want to see the drive-in die," said co-owner Marlene Nelson.

She added the Stardust has never seen as much traffic from Winnipeg as this past summer. "One person said to us, 'We lost Headingley (the Odeon Drive-In). We don't want to lose Morden, too.' "

The Stardust showed its last movies on Labour Day weekend and it's still too early to say whether it will reopen next year, Nelson said. The owners feel they need to raise about $25,000 "to make digital feasible."

Meanwhile, the sign where movie titles normally go outside the Shamrock theatre now reads, "Closed Until Digital." Shamrock owners Darren and Joanne Struss are just starting to fundraise by setting up a Paypal account for people to donate (information is available on Facebook under Shamrock Drive-In) and there is talk of the community throwing a social.

"We can't foot an $89,000 projector," said Joanne. But taking donations feels weird, even though people tell her the Shamrock is a "community commodity."

"It's a very strange thing for me to raise money for a business I own. I think I have to get over that. It's truly very humbling that people want to help out in that regard. We really do just want to keep it open for the people who love it," said Joanne, who has seven children, with the oldest helping run the theatre. Returns from the drive-in only covered the family's grocery bills for the summer, and property taxes, she said.

Some hopes have been raised by reports a company is developing significantly less-expensive digital equipment. The company is called RED Digital. Struss is hopeful some company will find a more economical way for small theatre owners to convert to digital but nothing has been demonstrated yet.

Meanwhile, Big Island Drive-In in Flin Flon is unique in North America. "It's in a beautiful location. It's surrounded by trees and only metres away from a lake. At times, movies are accompanied by a great northern lights display," said Mark Kolt, Flin Flon's chief administrator.

But owner Bill Leefe in Flin Flon was pessimistic about the future in an interview last May and residents of the northern Manitoba community say little has changed. Leefe could not be reached for comment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 A11

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