The future shines bright from the Mission Tiki Drive-in's brand-new digital projection system (Photo courtesy of Emilio Flores)
Way back in 2005 I was lucky enough to be part of a gathering of drive-in movie aficionados who ended up becoming the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society, a group which managed to transcend our natural tendency toward nostalgia and ended up playing a part, however small, in promoting the mini-resurgence of drive-in awareness and popularity here in the greater Los Angeles area. The formation of SoCalDIMS, as it came to be known, coincided with the emergence of a super-bright illumination system called Technalight, with which many of the drive-ins we frequented, as well as many others around the country, were eventually retrofitted. Technalight was the next step in improving the drive-in experience for the throngs who had come to miss them as their popularity diminished in the 1990s, as well as for promoting drive-ins as an inexpensive family-oriented alternative to the multiplex crush.
Speaking as one who grew up with drive-ins (one in particular) that weren’t exactly bastions of technological accomplishment—none of them were back then, really—the step up from really old-school 35mm carbon-arc and platter projection systems to what Technalight has had to offer Southern California drive-in fanatics since 2005 really can’t be exaggerated. But in the old pre-Technalight days, brightness and clarity of the image wasn’t always dictated simply by the limitations of the machinery in the projection room.
The owner of the drive-in in my hometown was never a very enthusiastic participant in his chosen profession of movie exhibition, but never less so than in the summer months, when the persistence of the sun in the sky meant that he had to start the show around the time he’d really rather be slipping on his smoking jacket and slippers and preparing to retire for the evening. And on the monthly movie calendars he used to promote the theater’s schedule, he always made sure to note that the “show starts at dusk,” with an approximate start time always printed below the feature information on the calendar. Folks who went to the drive-in regularly knew that those start times were almanac-inspired and quite specific—if the calendar said “Show Starts at 8:45,” by God, that’s when it would start.
The problem was that those times were never coincidental with the actual darkness required to project film. The earlier the start, the earlier the finish, so those schedules were usually timed not with the night sky but to the approximate moment the sun disappeared over the western horizon, and since the drive-in lot was positioned so that cars were pointed west facing the screen, there was always plenty of residual sunlight warming the sky in precisely the direction of the projector’s throw. As a result, the first 30 minutes or so of every movie I ever saw at the Circle JM Drive-in in Lakeview, Oregon, looked the same, mostly a murky collection of shadowy movement on the screen that gradually gained enough brightness to actually be discernible at about the time a third of the movie was already over. Though not every drive-in I went to as a young man was this silly about determining the right time to start a movie, most were lacking the substantive clarity that would make them a viable alternative for someone who really wanted to “see” the movie, which was why Technalight registered as such a stark improvement.
Fast-forward to 2011, a point in the history of movie exhibition when it became clearer and clearer that studios were moving toward phasing out traditional 35mm distribution in favor of the more freshly minted DCP, or Digital Cinema Package. And they weren’t making a choice of the matter—plans to halt all 35mm distribution to theaters will, by the end of this year, 2013, be the reality, not just an ominous rumor, and theaters that haven’t adapted, or haven’t been able to afford to convert to digital projection systems (like the one seen on the left, newly installed at the Holiday Drive-in in Fort Collins, Colorado), are preparing to close their doors for good—they’ll have no more films to thread through their seriously obsolete 35mm film projectors.
That dire prognosis was one faced by drive-ins too-- for some of them the bottom line was just too hard, and they have had to shut down. But for those that were able to survive and make the switch, being forced kicking and screaming into the digital realm may turn out to be a huge blessing in disguise. All-night 35mm monster movie bliss-outs like the ones held at the Riverside Drive-in in North Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, do seem to be currently threatened (though it’s hard to imagine studios not making car-club faves like Grease and American Graffiti readily available). However, most 21st-century drive-ins are family-friendly outlets which thrive not on the schlocky B-movies closely associated with the teen-fueled “ozoner” phenomenon of the 1950s and 1960s, but instead on mainstream fare that can be expected to fill up the giant lots even on weeknights. And if the double feature I took in last weekend at the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, California, is any indication, digital projection might turn out to be an even better thing to happen to drive-ins and the brightness of their future than Technalight, or maybe even better than the “refreshment center” countdown to show time.
It seems to me that it’s always a good idea to resist the initial hype on quality of improvements and innovation until one can see the end result with one’s own eyes. So I eagerly gathered up the three girls and we headed out to the Mission Tiki this past Saturday night to check out the newly installed DCP, which the theater had been promoting and trumpeting on its Web site since well before its premiere the previous weekend, with just such an eyewitness account in mind. When my family and I go to the drive-in, we usually like to park in the front row, the better to back our van up toward the screen, pop the hatchback and create a pillow-and-blanket-lined viewing environment for the kids that spills out the back, where camp chairs, tables, coolers can take over for a real drive-in tailgating feel. It makes for a great atmosphere, but from a vantage point so close to the screen even a Technalight-powered image runs the risk of looking fuzzy at times, especially if the projectionist is not particularly good at monitoring the focus. All the way in through the gate and up until show time, I had trouble getting my head to believe that, given the huge distance from the projection booth to the #3 screen where we were parked Saturday night, digital projection at a drive-in could be that noticeable an upgrade.
How nice it is, sometimes, to be wrong.
At 8:30 p.m., under cover of plenty of night, the first image, a logo for the company that created and installed the digital cinema package in use at the Mission Tiki, snapped onto the screen. From that logo, to the brilliant green cards announcing the latest trailers, to the commencement of the movie itself, there could be little doubt that digital projection and drive-ins might well be a match made in Hollywood heaven. As hard as it is to believe, and I wouldn’t have believed such a claim before seeing it myself, the digital image of Fast & Furious 6 and Iron Man 3 (a great double feature by the way, and a hell of a bargain at a total admission of $22 for the four of us—thanks, Mission Tiki!) was every bit as crisp, clean and clear as ones I’ve seen projected at indoor multiplexes all across Southern California.
As for the audio, we depended on our car stereo, all sound directed to the rear speakers, to get us through, augmented by the sound pumping out of surrounding cars (we were lucky enough to be parked near a pickup truck that was rockin’ one of these bad boys— an industrial strength Bosch Power Box that, at around $200, would be an excellent Father’s Day gift (clears throat) and a superb addition to the serious drive-in enthusiast’s toy box.
But even with concessions to the varying quality of sound dictated by the FM stereo system and playback system you have available on any given night, I had to admit that with the advent of digital projection, and at the markedly less expensive admission prices, the drive-in suddenly looks like it could develop into a place where a customer might possibly appreciate the way a movie looks as much as indulging in a cool breeze while watching it. The comparatively stress-free fun of kicking back for a movie under the stars has always been a happy alternative to chugging through the multiplex maze, but up till now probably only the most ardent drive-in enthusiast would opt out of the high-tech indoor screen environment for big summer blockbusters. However, and quite improbably, the marvel of digital projection at the drive-in is that as far as the image is concerned DCPs seem to have brought the technological experience of seeing an outdoor movie to within shouting distance of a slick multiplex screening for the first time since Richard Hollingshead kicked off the whole drive-in movie history in 1933-- and at approximately half the price of an outing to your nearest AMC or other big theater chain.
And from the front row of the lot, just 100 feet or less from the giant screen, there was no dissipation or loss of image sharpness—Vin Diesel and Paul Walker-- or more importantly, Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano, and all those gleaming muscle cars—had a crispness of focus that translated superbly to the great outdoors and was maintained all the way to the end of Iron Man 3.
I have lived my life as a drive-in movie fan fully cognizant of the format’s inherent technical inferiority to indoor theaters, all the while loving and embracing drive-ins for the uniqueness of what they had to offer. At the same time, many of my friends consistently turned their noses up at the experience—for them the trade-off of pristine control versus the relative wildness of a night at the drive-in amounted to too much of a loss. I can’t imagine that veteran drive-in lovers will find much to complain about in regard to what DCPs seem to have added to the appeal of this 75-year-old American institution. But now maybe even those who have so far resisted the siren call of Hollingshead’s car culture-inspired asphalt movie palaces will finally be seduced. Drive-ins began with the isolation of individual automobiles and, after looking all but extinct only a decade ago, have survived long enough to evolve into an expansive, movie-centric outdoor party atmosphere. It may just be that now they can and will continue on into a future so bright it could only be digital.
Some further drive-in reading for the season:
Rod Amateau’s Drive-in (1976) isn’t so much a good movie as it is a delightful bit of pop culture anthropology, a perfect time capsule look at what going to a small-town drive-in was really like. Here’s my review...
and my primer on the history of the drive-in...
And if you’re in the Los Angeles area and would like to see digital drive-in projection for yourself in the company of like-minded seekers, you are cordially invited to join the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society as we convoy to the Mission Tiki for the first big summer drive-in party of the year, Saturday, June 22nd. Get all the details on our Facebook event page. We hope to see you there!