Changeover to digital projection stresses family-owned drive-in cinemas

Charles Smith operating the new projector at the Hyde Park Drive-In (photo by Quinn O’Callaghan)

Charles Smith operating the new projector at the Hyde Park Drive-In (photo by Quinn O’Callaghan)

It’s not the night that Charles Smith was hoping for. The Hyde Park Drive-In, on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend – a late-summer drive-in cash-cow holiday – is only playing host only to a handful of cars, parked, advantageously, in a parabola in front of the dual snack-bar-and-projector building. Potential patrons can’t be blamed for not showing up; it’s 80 degrees and loathsomely muggy, and errant lightning is blowing up the sky from Poughkeepsie to Hudson. Smith, manager of the Hyde Park Drive-In, is a happy guy, with the chirpy voice of a Minor League baseball announcer and a real interest in the work that he does, but he seems a little off. He knows that, because of some big and absolutely necessary purchases, the Hyde Park Drive-In needs every red cent that it can get its hands on.

Smith has been in the cinema business for decades, working as a projectionist and manager at various cineplexes before winding up at the Hyde Park Drive-In, under the employ of Barry Horowitz. He has worked at the Drive-In for 15 years, and has operated all his life as a projectionist: a trade that he said he learned from his uncle, who himself learned it from Smith’s grandfather. As a result he knows the ins and outs of 35mm film reels, which have been the industry standard for close to a century.

But by the end of this year, 35mm will be out the window. Film companies have issued an edict: By the end of 2013, all films will be released in digital format only, and will require digital projectors. The standard is being restandardized.

“It’s a pros-and-cons game,” said Smith of the new digital edict. “I always say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The film will always, always look good on screen – but when it comes down to it, it’s all about the money.”

Money for the film companies, that is. It’s cheaper to send out digital copies of the film than to produce thousands of film reels, and the digital films themselves, which require a tightly allotted password to run, are less likely to be bootlegged by devious cinema-workers. Smith thinks that that’s kind of silly.

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