Hollywood innovation could put an end to Vermont's surviving drive-ins
Inside the projection hut at the Fairlee Drive-In Theater  sits a piece of history. It’s a bulky, 35-millimeter carbon-arc projector from the 1950s, still wired in beside the newer model that owner Peter Trapp currently uses to show movies on his single screen. Bought for $40,000 in 2003, when Trapp and his wife purchased the drive-in, the second projector could soon be a museum piece, too.
The studios have decided Hollywood’s future is digital, and the impact of that choice will be deeply felt in places like this pine-flanked Route 5 enclave near the New Hampshire border. In short, advancing technology could spell the end of the American drive-in.
Digital distribution is “the holy grail of the studios,” Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock told Variety in 2010, for a simple reason: Movies are cheaper to ship on hard drives than on multiple film reels. In 2011, the industry journal reported that John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, had warned his members that new film prints might disappear by the end of 2013. “Simply put,” Fithian said, “if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”
Moviegoers who frequent busy multiplexes may barely notice the change. Merrill Jarvis III, owner of Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas in Burlington (which projects 35-millimeter film) and co-owner of the Majestic 10 in Williston (which is fully digital), says his customers don’t remark on the difference.
But in the next few years, locals might get a shock when they decide to pack up the kids and head to the drive-in. Seasonal businesses with erratic attendance, drive-ins give their owners little leeway for new investments. Decades ago, the rise of home video devastated the nation’s once-thriving drive-in culture, leaving just seven outdoor screens in Vermont (one each in Bethel, Fairlee and St. Albans, and four in Colchester). Will digital technology deliver the killing blow?
Peter Trapp, for one, is not going down without a fight. The New Jersey native is the first to admit he’s not a tech expert. But he says his “guy” — a supplier — priced the digital projector he would need to meet the studios’ specifications at about $70,000.
Trapp is still paying off his 35-millimeter projector, and says he’s loath to ditch equipment that has “nothing wrong with it.” No one has given him a “drop-dead date” when film prints will vanish. But when it comes to digital conversion, he says, “You know it’s coming. It’s like winter. You can’t ignore it.”
So to raise the money, he’s appealing to the same community that has kept the Fairlee Drive-In alive for the past 62 years. The business’ website and a Facebook page now exhort readers to “Save the Fairlee Drive-In!” As of press time, Trapp says he has collected $2583 in donations at the theater. A benefit concert with local band the Conniption Fits is scheduled for August 12.
Gray haired, with sharp eyes assessing visitors from under his sporting-goods-store cap, Trapp responds in the negative when asked if he’s a movie buff. So why did he buy a drive-in?
For the same reasons many people go to drive-ins: nostalgia, a sense of connection to the past, a family bonding experience. When he was a kid in the mid-1960s, Trapp remembers, he came to the Fairlee Drive-In every Saturday night throughout the summer with his bunkmates from a nearby farm camp.
In 1997, Trapp moved his family from New Jersey to Piermont, N.H., where they raise cattle. A few years later, he noticed that the drive-in across the river was for sale, along with its adjacent motel. (The Fairlee is one of just two motel/drive-ins left in the U.S. where guests can watch the show from their rooms.) Before he made the big purchase, Trapp consulted with his three sons. “This is something that you do with your kids,” he told Seven Days food writer Alice Levitt in 2009. “They feel special because they have a drive-in.”
Today, the drive-in still keeps the young Trapps busy; only one employee isn’t a family member. The family farm supplies beef for the burgers sold at the concessions trailer. Concessions, Trapp notes, aren’t the cash cow for drive-ins that they are for indoor theaters, because customers in cars can bring their own provisions.
And every bit counts, because drive-ins, like all theaters, face the ongoing challenge posed by cheaper entertainment options such as Netflix, Redbox and video on demand. By way of contrast, Trapp points to the nearby Bear Ridge Speedway. Live stock-car racing, he notes, offers ticket buyers an experience they’ll never be able to replicate in their living rooms. Can a movie do that?
Some movies are still events, of course. On Friday, July 20, plenty of fans ponied up to see The Dark Knight Rises on the big screen, undeterred by the tragic theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., early that morning. The film would go on to gross more than $160 million in its first weekend.
But at the Fairlee Drive-In, an hour or so before dusk, drivers still had their pick of spaces in the grassy field around the cinderblock projection hut.
“Thirty-five minutes open, you got a dozen cars,” Trapp remarked stoically. On a busy night, he said, he’d see “cars lined up out to the road by six.” A kids movie such as Pixar’s Brave still draws a good crowd, he added — but not like years ago, when Trapp sometimes saw lines of 300 cars stretching down Route 5. “After 2007, it’s just fallen off a cliff,” he said.
In the field, some of the early arrivals had camped out on blankets to enjoy the sunset. Among them was a family of Batman fans: Christina and Kyle Scott of Quechee and their two young children, all wearing the Caped Crusader’s logo.
Christina Scott said she and her husband have been attending the Fairlee Drive-In “since we were children” and still come about twice a month: “It’s a good experience for the kids.”
“It’s a drive-in — what’s not to like?” Kyle Scott chimed in.
A few cars over, a group of teens from Windsor and Cornish, N.H., said this was their first visit to the Fairlee. The draw? “Cheap Batman,” they chorused.
At $9 per adult and $6 per child over 5, the drive-in isn’t that cheap. But it offers customers certain fringe benefits. “They like the fact that they can smoke,” Trapp noted. “They have little communities here.” Drive-ins, he said, tend to draw an audience of families with small children and dating couples — people who want to see a first-run film with a measure of privacy. And, yes, Trapp said, he has spotted a bra dangling from a car antenna on occasion.
Merrill Jarvis III remembers a time when drive-ins dotted Vermont’s most populous corridor. He ticks them off: the Burlington Drive-In on Shelburne Road, the Mountain View Drive-In in Winooski, the Malletts Bay and Sunset drive-ins in Colchester, the Milton Drive-In, the St. Albans Drive-In.
And all of them, it seems, were owned by the Jarvis family or their relatives. When he was two days old, Jarvis says, his mother bedded him down in the Burlington Drive-In’s projection room. When he was older, he cleaned the place for quarters. “It’s in my blood,” he says. “I miss the drive-in.”
Now only two of those drive-ins remain: the four-screen Sunset, owned by Peter Jay Handy (Jarvis’ cousin); and the single-screen St. Albans Drive-In, owned by Anthony Gamache (also a relative), which operates just two or three days a week. The others closed when people started buying home-video equipment, Jarvis recalls.
Will the surviving drive-ins upgrade? Gamache says his film booker has warned him that “35-millimeter film will probably stop being made as of next year.” While he appreciates that development as the “natural evolution of the film industry,” he continues, “for us, it just doesn’t seem to make sense to invest in that [digital] upgrade. It’s really tough to make it go with one screen anyway.” By contrast, Gamache’s sister, who owns St. Albans’ downtown indoor theater, the Welden, plans to invest in digital and 3-D projection.
Losing the drive-in, which has been in his family since the 1970s, would be “bittersweet,” Gamache says. He speculates that some of his customers might incorrectly attribute its demise to nearby big-box stores such as Walmart, when the real culprit is digital distribution — an innovation that could sound “the death knell for a lot of single-screen drive-ins.”
When will theaters be forced to upgrade or die? No one seems to know.
On July 8, Jarvis seized a rare opportunity to chat with Warner Brothers CEO Barry Meyer when he hosted a special screening of The Dark Knight Rises at the Majestic 10, orchestrated by Sen. Patrick Leahy. The theater owner had just one question for the studio head, he says: How soon would Warner stop shipping film prints?
The question rang ironically in context: The digital Majestic was showing TDKR on a 35-millimeter projector specially installed for the occasion on the order of director Christopher Nolan, an outspoken advocate of film. (Last April, Gendy Alimurung of L.A. Weekly reported that Nolan had gathered his fellow directors to warn them that “35mm will be stamped out by the studios unless people — people like them — insist otherwise.”
Jarvis was satisfied with the answer he got from Meyer, who told him to think in terms of “years” and not months, he says. When it comes to converting the downtown Roxy — which could cost $700,000 — “I want to wait as long as I can,” Jarvis explains. “The technology is changing so fast; now is not the time to get on the bandwagon.”
Innovations such as higher frame rates and laser-light technology could revolutionize the industry yet again, Jarvis points out. Besides, he likes being able to tinker with his traditional projectors.
Trapp puts the updating dilemma bluntly: “You don’t want to be the first on your block to buy a color TV, ’cause it’s gonna break,” he says.
For theaters that meet certain conditions, the film industry is offering a financial incentive to update called the “virtual-print fee.” But drive-ins aren’t eligible, says Trapp, because they are seasonal and rarely show the same film for three weeks in a row.
In his projection booth, Trapp speculates on how the studios will proceed. Maybe, he says, they will start charging him more for prints or require him to purchase them outright. Maybe they will circulate fewer prints, so nondigital theaters need to get in line. “They could curtail it enough so you have to change over.”
Trapp remembers what a big step forward his new system was in 2003, with its xenon bulb and FM stereo sound. “In five years,” he wonders, “are they changing the tech again? Is it going to be 3-D, 4-D, 8-D?” If he gets his digital system, will it last 53 years like the carbon-arc projector, or be declared obsolete after a decade, like his current one?
“I raise cows,” Trapp concludes, “so this is much too exciting for me.”
“Save the Fairlee Drive-In” benefit concert with the Conniption Fits, Sunday, August 12, at the Fairlee Drive-In. Doors open at 2 p.m. $25. For more info, check the Facebook page or write email@example.com.