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Conversion to digital equipment means end is near for drive-in theatres rural cinemas

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MORDEN -- Marlene Nelson's magic drive-in movie moment came while watching the tornado flick Twister.

It was a dark and stormy night at Morden's Stardust Drive-In: screaming winds; thunder and lightning all around. Then a great gust of wind blew across at the precise moment in the movie when a tornado whips a cow across the screen.

Nelson jumped. Tornado-like winds had already blown down the Stardust Drive-In screen in the late 1980s.

"You thought they were our neighbour's cows sailing across," she said.

Those times are coming to an end. You can count the days.

This summer may well be the Last Picture Show for Manitoba's three remaining drive-in theatres. Several family-owned, rural cinemas are also expected to close.

The movie industry says it will stop making movies with 35-millimetre film and use digital, starting Jan. 1, 2013. Many small, rural cinemas simply can't absorb the cost of purchasing digital projectors.

For drive-in movie theatres, there's no business plan in the world that justifies spending $60,000 to $80,000 -- $100,000, if you want 3-D capability -- on equipment for a business that operates 31/2 months a year and only on weekends. The outlook isn't much better for small, family-owned cinemas that face the same costs.

The saddest part is drive-ins are enjoying a revival. The dusk-to-dawn triple feature at the Stardust, which Nelson owns with her two brothers, pulled in the biggest crowd in more than a decade last May long weekend -- more than 300 people.

"Home video machines took down drive-ins," said Nelson. "Then, all of a sudden, it's turned around to, you know what? People want to get out again."

In Flin Flon, the Big Island Drive-In did better business than the city's indoor cinema, the Hapnot Theatre. So Bill Leefe, who owned both, closed the Hapnot three years ago and kept the drive-in.

Now Big Island Drive-In, in operation since 1957, looks like it will be next to go.

"I'm looking at a $100,000 expense. At my age (61), I've got other interests in life," Leefe said.

"Would I rather be in a boat fishing most of the time? Yes."

In Killarney, the Shamrock Drive-In was revitalized last year by new owners, Darren and Joanne Struss. Joanne runs the theatre with her seven children. Last year, her oldest son, John, then 13, worked the ticket gate. Daughters Jessica and Amanda, ages 11 and 9, ran the concession stand.

The tricky part was the math. The Shamrock doesn't have a cash register. By season's end, the girls could do the numbers in their heads.

As for the Shamrock's viability, a relative connected with Tinkertown in Winnipeg looked at her attendance figures, factored in the cost of digital -- probably $85,000, Joanne said -- and had two words of advice: "Close up."

But then there are nights like last year, when they showed the movie Cars 2.

"I had serious lines down the highway, both north and south," said Joanne. All six rows of the Shamrock were packed with vehicles, for an audience of more than 300 people. "I just kept walking around outside going, 'Wow! Wow!' "

Convert or die. That's how the death of film is being presented to theatre owners.

As many as 20 per cent of movie theatres, or 10,000 screens, will disappear in the switch to digital, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The carnage could be higher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, said Kellen Jasper, president of the Motion Picture Theatre Association of Central Canada. Jasper estimates up to 30 per cent of movie houses and drive-ins will fade to black across Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

"This is the biggest change to film since sound was introduced in 1932," he said.

The reason is simple: cost savings. It costs almost $3,000 just to make a print. Then there are shipping costs.

video player to use on WFP



Right now, movie theatres are still having reels of film shipped to them in canisters. A film can weigh up to 23 kilograms -- as opposed to using a little 15x15-centimetre hard drive you just have to plug into the digital projector. Initially, the digital movies are being delivered by registered courier but will eventually be transmitted electronically or by satellite.

Some movie distributors, such as Disney and Dreamworks, have already switched entirely to digital. Sony doesn't have many 35-mm prints anymore. That has cut down on the number of movies available to theatres.

Digital should also allow for more options, such as showing live concerts, sporting events or low-budget films and lesser-known productions.

City theatres are mostly on their way to converting. It's in the country where the conversion is having the greatest impact. Many theatres there would never be built today, based on current populations and movie-going frequency.

The rural cinemas likely to survive are community-owned ones. Neepawa's Roxy Theatre, run by a volunteer board, has already raised $40,000 for a digital projector. The Royal Canadian Air Force Band performed a fundraiser, bringing in $2,500. The local co-op has chipped in $5,000, and Hylife Foods put in $7,500.

The local high school band also performed recently, after a man in town pledged to match any money raised by students.

In Glenboro, the Gaiety Theatre, owned by the Glenboro Community Development Corp., recently held a fundraiser, The Last Dinner on the Titanic, where people could buy meals off the actual menu from the ill-fated cruise liner. First-class, second-class and third-class meals sold for $200, $100 and $50 respectively.

The Gaiety has also snagged grants from the Farm Credit Corp. and the Manitoba Community Service Council. Pioneer Grain, the Richardson family grain company, chipped in $2,500, as well as six local people who put in $1,000 each.

Meanwhile, the publicly owned Deloraine Winchester Theatre has begun a Pennies for Pictures campaign, with small jars for donations strategically placed around town. Pennies are going out of circulation anyway, said Pam Hainsworth, the chief administrator for the RM of Winchester.

The community theatre has also applied for a grant from the federal New Horizons for Seniors Program by promising to show matinees to seniors. The Strand Theatre in Melita and the Boissevain Community Theatre are also busy raising funds for digital equipment.

A few independents are here to stay, too, and have either converted or are in the midst of converting. That includes the theatre in Stonewall owned by Don Smith, as well as the theatre in Gimli.


One private movie theatre owner is rumoured to have mortgaged his house to buy a digital projector.

But others are sure to call it a wrap. The Lorne Theatre in Somerset, owned by Richard Raine, is certain to close. The family has owned it for 25 years, and the theatre has operated since before the Second World War. No one is offering public monies to the privately owned theatres, Raine said.

"Because we're a private company, we can't qualify for government grants."

The Lorne Theatre used to get 1,300 people on a good weekend, and most small-town theatres are open only on weekends. Now it's more like 50 to 70 people.

"We've just been working in it for free. We just like the idea of showing movies," said Raine, 52, a paramedic.

The same goes for a lot of theatre owners in rural Manitoba.

Other movie houses that could be on the chopping block include the Derrick Theatre in Virden, owned by brothers Randy and Rick Slater.

Meanwhile, movie theatres in the Parkland district took a big hit when the Dauphin multiplex opened last year. Ottawa ponied up $1.2 million and the province $300,000 for the $4.7-million facility.

Dean Salyn, who bought the Roblin Theatre just a year earlier, has seen a marked drop-off in traffic since the Dauphin theatres opened. He wonders how small single-screen theatres can compete with that.


"Whether or not we can afford to change over is made more difficult with a government-funded competitor," said Salyn.

Two or three cinemas could close in that Parkland region, he said.

Salyn compares the co-existence of film and digital over the past decade to the automotive sector.

"There was a time you could see a motor car and horse-and-buggy on the road at the same time. But you don't see buggies anymore, do you?"

The drive-ins could be the biggest loss.

There used to be 24 drive-ins in Manitoba: seven in Winnipeg and 17 outside, said Russ Gourluck, whose book, Silver Screens on the Prairie, is an illustrated history of movie theatres across Manitoba, due out this fall.

"Of all the theatres likely to close, I think the drive-ins are the most vulnerable," said Gourluck.


The Stardust first opened in 1952 in Saskatchewan and reopened in Morden in 1964. The popcorn machine is the same age and still makes kettle-popped corn in coconut oil that tastes as good or better than product in new movie houses.

Marlene Nelson grew up in the house next door to the drive-in and she and her siblings all worked there as kids, walking home under starlit skies after a show.

So it was natural for Nelson and her two brothers, Larry and Ken -- the three of them also run Freund's Auto Parts two doors down, started by their father -- to buy the drive-in in 2002.

The families work alternating weekends and then all help out for long weekend triple features. Their kids all help, and only receive wages on good nights. Friends pitch in, too.

"The movie business just gets in your blood," Nelson said, something all movie theatre owners say one way or another.

Joke: Why did the employees in the Department of Highways truck keep driving past the drive-in movie theatre?

Because there was more asphalt at the drive-in than anywhere else. Badabing!

Stardust co-owner Nelson told that joke but blamed it on one of her brothers.

Of course, the drive-in is still a great place to take a date but couples be warned: They've stopped showing the boring second feature.

They're great family entertainment. Grandparents bring grandkids in their pajamas. Or people can stay overnight at the Stardust in Morden.

It recently installed 14 fully service campsites. Families can camp at the back and watch a movie from the vehicle, lawn chair or even over a campfire. Of course, that makes the cost much more affordable for families from out of town.

Many people bring lawn chairs. That's Nelson's favourite way to watch a movie, sitting outside with her girlfriends.

The sunsets are beautiful, too, she adds.

Some people have watched movies at the Stardust from a portable Jacuzzi.

Once a mom wanted to do something different for her daughter's 16th birthday. So she had her daughter and friends taken to the Stardust in a limousine. Some girls watched from lawn chairs and some from the limousine, parked sideways.

"You've got to let them have fun as long as they're not bothering anyone," said Nelson.

The drive-ins show second-run movies. Morden is about an hour's drive from the junction of the Perimeter Highway and Highway 3. Upcoming movies can be checked at website, but it's not updated as often as it should be.

Nelson and her brothers don't want to close the drive-in.

"You're just going, 'How in the world are we going to pay for it?' " she said. "We're going to need help."

No can do, said Morden Mayor Ken Wiebe.

Wiebe was matter-of-fact about the drive-in's fate.

"It's one of these things where things change. I can remember when the drive-in was full on a Friday or Saturday night. Those days are gone. It's a fact of life," Wiebe said.

The mayor supposes the Stardust attracts people to Morden but couldn't venture a guess on its economic impact. Regardless, the town can't help.

"How do you put community money into a private business? It would become a taxpayers-funded private enterprise."

Nelson thinks the drive-in adds more to a community than people realize. The Stardust lures many Winnipeggers to Morden on summer weekends, and tourists go out of their way to make overnight stops, Nelson said.

"I should have a guest book."

Killarney Mayor Rick Pauls thinks the Shamrock Drive-In is a jewel and the community has to do everything possible to keep it.

It makes business sense, too, he said. People from North Dakota regularly drive up to catch a movie; others come from Brandon and from across Canada.

"It puts us on the map," said Pauls.

He is pushing to find some way to keep the drive-in, whether through fundraisers such as socials, or perhaps finding a way the projector can be put to use in the off-season to help defray costs.

"It would be a huge loss" for Killarney if the Shamrock closed, he said. "It's part of our heritage. It's part of a North American phenomenon that's disappearing."

The Struss family doesn't want to close it, either. The movie bug bit them hard after just one year.

"We know it won't pay for itself," said Joanne Struss, about a digital projector. But it's almost a heart-versus-money issue.

"The drive-in has been part of my life since childhood," said Joanne, who grew up in Killarney and recently moved back with her family.

"It's one of those things you hate to see die."

Manitoba's drive-Ins

Seven in Winnipeg included the Pembina Drive-In, built in 1949, where the Bishop Grandin overpass is today; the El Dorado Drive-In (1950), where Sobey's is on Henderson Highway; North Main Drive-In, where the Copacabana was from 1950 to 1980; the Airport Drive-In, next to the old Airline Motor Inn on Ellice Avenue, which moved to Steinbach and became the Skyline; the Circus Drive-In (1952), near the Westwood Inn on Portage Avenue; the Starlite Drive-In, off Regent Avenue; and the Odeon Drive-In in Headingley, the last built, 1963, and the last to close, 2007.

Outside the city, some of the drive-ins included the Lockport Drive-In; the Circus Drive-in in Portage la Prairie; the Airline Drive-In in Neepawa, owned by Izzy Asper's parents, Leon and Cecilia Asper; the Green Acres Drive-In in Brandon; the Lucky Star in Souris.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J12

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