The Hi-Way Drive-In has been slotting 35mm film reels since 1984, when owners Don and Judy Gawel first got into the cinema business. Moving pictures were a revolution in artistic medium, and their 35mm reels had been the standard for decades.
With the advent of digital media and Hollywood’s push into 3-D movies, 35mm film has been slowly retreating from mainstream use. Don said the Hi-Way’s switch to digital projectors, starting today, is just progress.
“(35mm film has) been there forever – since the days of black-and-white. Everything evolved around the motion picture,” he said.
The Carrolltown drive-in will be closed today and Tuesday for installation of a Barco DP2K-32B digital projector. Don said it’s hailed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the brightest digital cinema projector ever.
They’ll be retiring a classic projector that is currently showing “Monsters University” and “The Lone Ranger,” and has shown many classics in its time.
“We’ve shown just about everything. ‘Titanic,’ a lot of big Disney movies. ‘The Lion King’ was a big sellout with ‘Angels in the Outfield’ as a separate feature,” he said.
Patrons use their vehicle radios to pick up FM channel 104.5. They can put their seats back or pop the back hatch for the family to line up below the screen.
Drive-ins are a piece of Americana that Don said he feels will always retain enthusiasts.
“Drive-in businesses have a unique type of people,” he said. “They enjoy the outdoors; they enjoy watching movies in that kind of format.”
Don and Judy also own the Portage Bar-Ann Drive-In, now showing “Despicable Me 2” and “Man of Steel.”
Its reels have been spinning since 1957. The theater’s name was taken from those of the original owner’s daughters, Barbara and Ann.
The Gawels also owned a third location, but Don said they lost it in the past five years.
He said Westwood Plaza off of Goucher Street in Lower Yoder Township and the Wal-Mart plot in Richland Town Centre used to be drive-ins.
Don said the tradition’s decline can be attributed to many factors, but mainly the value of prime plots on which they were built, creating an incentive for operators to sell when business is down, as well as small-town cinemas’ struggle to stay on top of tech trends.
Don said the digital switch at his two locations cost around $75,000 each. The Bar-Ann Drive-In will be refitted with a digital projector later this year, he said.
“Digital, of course, I think is going to affect the drive-in numbers also,” Don said. “(Our) business has been basically doing well. There aren’t many (drive-ins) left anymore. I intend to keep these as long as I can.”
When the Hi-Way Drive-In goes digital on Wednesday, Don said he feels it won’t represent the end of the analog era – just the beginning of a digital era.
“You either go with the new era of technology or you go out of business,” he said. “I chose to stay in it.”