EDEN, N.C. — Off and on since the late 1940s, the Eden Drive-In has been entertaining families on its outdoor screen with the latest Hollywood films.
And thanks to its new digital projectors, the drive-in is investing in its future, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
“Everybody (who runs a drive-in) loves it,” said manager Tim Robertson, 37, whose family owns several drive-ins and indoor theaters around the state. “It’s one of those businesses you can’t help but fall in love with.”
The drive-in is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
In the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters around the country, accounting for 25 percent of the nation’s movie screens.
Now, there are less than 350 drive-ins left. The website Drive-ins.com lists 210 drive-in theaters that once existed in North Carolina, with only five remaining. In addition to Eden, there’s the Badin Road Drive-In in Albemarle, which the Robertson family also owns; the Bessemer City Kings Mountain Drive-In Theatre in Bessemer City; the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre in Henderson; and the Sunset Drive-In in Shelby.
Drive-ins have gone through some hard times in recent years, from customers’ changing viewing habits to light pollution to the fact that the land the drive-ins sit on can be more valuable as real estate for development than as a big open field for viewing a movie.
But the latest problem is movie studios’ shift away from sending out film prints to providing digital copies of films. As a result, theaters are left with the choices of spending big bucks to convert to digital, close or try to survive offering only older films.
The “Nostalgic Drive-In Theater Newspaper Ads” Facebook page recently published a list of 72 drive-ins around the country that have not converted to digital projection, some of which recently closed and others which are still open but are potentially “on life support.”
Among the recent closures was the Belmont Drive-In Theatre near Charlotte, which shut down this year because it could not afford the almost $100,000 expense that the owner told the Gaston Gazette it would take to install new equipment.
The Robertsons saw the writing on the wall several years ago and began planning for a digital future. They have bought digital projectors that cost about $60,000 each, putting in two at the Eden Drive-In and three at the Badin Road Drive-In, which shows movies on two screens. That way, each theater has a spare projector in case one breaks down, Robertson said.
“If one projector goes out and you don’t have a backup, you’re done for,” he said.
Instead of film reels, the studios now send out removable hard drives, housed in sturdy metallic boxes a little bigger than a VHS videotape.
Studios told theaters five or six years ago that they would be making the transition from film reels to digital. Some studios have already stopped sending out 35-millimeter film, and others are close to doing so. Some drive-ins around the country have turned to fundraising campaigns for new digital projectors, but the Robertsons paid for the upgrades at their two drive-ins themselves.
“We look at it as an expense,” Robertson said. “It was something that had to be done. At the end of the day, our customers support us.”
And despite how few drive-ins there are these days, Robertson said they are a good investment since people crave inexpensive, family friendly entertainment.
“Every drive-in I know does great business,” he said.
The Eden Drive-In has a playground with swings and a wooden ark for the children; a patio with picnic tables and outdoor speakers; and a bustling concession stand that sells hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, popcorn, milkshakes and such unusual items as “funnel fries” — French fry-size sweets made of funnel cake batter — and “pickle-sicles” made of frozen pickle juice. Domino’s pepperoni pizzas also are sold by the pie or by the slice.
“The first place my parents brought me after I was born was here,” said Lorrie Norwood, 19, who is one of the employees in the concession stand.
People are also allowed to bring their own food and drinks — though open containers are not allowed outside of cars. And some folks even bring grills to cook food beside their cars.
Last Friday, the drive-in drew about 120 cars, with close to 200 on Saturday night.
Among Friday’s customers were Robert Burnett and his wife, Annette, who were making their eighth trip to the drive-in this summer from their home in Providence.
“We’re here pretty regularly,” he said, “and we bring the nephews and grandchildren. It’s just a family atmosphere. I’ve never seen any people get out of hand.”
It’s also a good bargain, he said, with admission of $6 a person for adults and double features each of the three nights during the summer. When school is in session, only one movie is shown Sunday nights.
“Three bucks a movie, you can’t beat that,” he said. They frequently bring relatives and family friends with them. One of their guests this night was Garry Stowe from Danville, Va., who has fond memories of going to drive-ins as a teen in the early 1960s and sneaking friends in the trunk of the car to save the $1 admission.
“It’s terrible, but we did those things growing up,” he said with a laugh.
Dana Lockhart came from Semora for her second visit to the drive-in, following a visit earlier this summer where she saw “Maleficent” and said she thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This time, she brought along a friend with kids. When she was there the last time, “I took pictures of it and sent it to people,” she recalled.
Bill Crews came from Greensboro with his three kids — Ryan, who was there to celebrate his eighth birthday; Lillyana, 4; and Austin, 9.
Crews had visited the drive-in as a teen, but had not been there in 13 years.
“I hope it stays,” he said. “I’d hate to see it go. There’s lots of great memories.”