by JEREMY NOBILE
At Ravenna Township's Midway Twin Drive-in Theater, large, antiquated Simplex 35mm movie projectors have gone the way of the VHS tape.
The theater, operated by Funflicks Inc., which also runs the Mayfield Road Drive-in Theater in Chardon, is among a core of America's drive-ins that have made a jump into the 21st century and replaced traditional film projectors with new all-digital models.
At roughly $100,000 a piece for each of the three new projectors -- two at the Ravenna theater, which can fit about 600 vehicles, and one in Chardon, which is about half that size -- Funflicks Inc. General Manager Mike Marxen said it's the single biggest change the Midway Drive-in on Route 59 has experienced since it opened in 1949.
Besides the vintage cars drive-ins used to draw, the digital movement itself is likely the biggest overall change the all-American institution has witnessed since drive-ins first appeared 80 years ago in New Jersey.
"Things are bound to change," Marxen said, "and you simply have to come up to speed with what the current trend is."
Film once contained in large metal cans is being replaced with computer-based drives that can be easily swapped in and out of modern digital projectors as studios abandon the antiquated film format.
STUDIOS WILL save about $1 billion per year by no longer putting movies both on film and digital hard drives, said Pat Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners.
It's unclear how many of the 357 drive-ins in America will either adapt or fade out of sight like a movie's ending credits, but the Midway and Mayfield drive-ins have elected to take the expensive leap.
Marxen, who began working at the Midway theater in 1984 fresh out of high school, said he's happy to help maintain the theater's legacy.
While the theater has become an icon in the Kent/Ravenna area, drive-ins have remained quite special in Ohio, which is tied with New York for having the most drive-ins in the U.S. (29), bested only by Pennsylvania's 30.
There are 357 drive-ins left across the country, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, down from 447 operating in 1999.
"It's good to keep something like this going because with less than 400 nationwide, it's kind of an elite status to be involved in something like this," Marxen said.
Careful management, specials and concession sales are what keep a drive-in viable, Marxen said, noting the Midway is offering new items like hand-dipped ice cream, s'mores and milkshakes for the first time this year.
Most indoor theaters made the transition to digital years ago, but costs have led to delays for drive-ins.
Owners of two theaters in Mansfield recently decided not to make the switch, but the Aut-O-Rama Drive-In in North Ridgeville installed a digital system for its two screens in April. Co-owner Deb Sherman said they had to take out a loan, but that it was "something we had to do."
THE MIDWAY Drive-in boasts plenty of connections to the past despite the modernization. A display case in the concessions area has tools of the projectionist trade that have been affectionately exiled as new equipment takes over, while classic arcade machines line the walls.
Splicers once used to join together film can be found in the case next to vintage radios that used to adorn drive-in posts.
At new digitally outfitted theaters like the ones in Ravenna and Chardon, movies are displayed in resolutions greater than high-definition television. And the audio is equally improved.
Despite a segue from traditional equipment, Marxen said the change is positive.
"I think it's good because we're providing a better presentation overall in both picture and sound," he said. "But with anything that's tech based, you're always behind the 8-ball on it. It's always going to be improving and going, and we're going to be trying to catch up to the new standard."
Marxen said he's already anticipating how technology will change movies in the future because just like computers, planned obsolescence is a standard feature.
"You've already got to start planning for the next upgrade," he said. "And when that comes, you'll have to be ready to make the change or get out of the business."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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