Small-town movie theaters struggle to stay afloat

OAK HARBOR — As the digital clock keeps ticking, the owners and patrons of the Blue Fox Drive-In Theater that harks back to 1959 know it’s only a matter of months.

Their beloved place with all those memories of summer nights snuggled up, and sometimes even watching movies through windshield wipers in pouring rain, has to adapt or die.

And adapting is going to cost something like $80,000, not money that mom-and-pop operations on a shoestring have handy.

That’s how much a digital projector costs, and drive-ins like the Blue Fox, and their cousins — the theaters in small towns — have no choice.

The days of 35-millimeter film are nearly over. The reels have been replaced by a computer hard drive, and going digital costs plenty.

On the Facebook page for the Blue Fox, now trying to fund the digital equipment by selling T-shirts and hoodies with blue lettering that glows in the dark, the plea is, “The show must go on!”

The page has nearly 3,700 friends.

A woman writes, “I love the drive in theater, Places in times like these should never wither away, we need our roots, our memories, our simpler times to keep us grounded and focused.”

Darrell Bratt, who, with his wife, Lori, bought the Blue Fox in 1988, jokes that if just one fan of the drive-in bought a T-shirt for $80,000, everything would be fine. So far, he’s sold about $16,000 worth of them.

“I’d rather not have to borrow money. Already, there is not enough money left after you pay for your business expenses,” he says.

To help with the finances, Lori works as a secretary at a middle school.

On a recent Saturday night, with around 65 cars, minivans and pickups parked to watch a double bill of “Prometheus” and “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” there is Shawn Mann standing in line to buy snacks. If it hadn’t rained that day, twice as many cars would have been there.

Mann is 30, grew up in the area, went to the drive-in as a kid and works in a nearby refinery. He and his wife, Alicia, who is pregnant, and their 3-year-old daughter, Elise, have come for another evening at the drive-in.

“This is a community landmark,” says Mann about the Blue Fox. “You come here, you run into people you haven’t seen in a while. In the last couple of years, we’ve moved around. My wife was saying the drive-in is the one constant thing.”

People here still remember how years ago, there used to be $1 Wednesdays, just a buck for however many people you could cram in a car. Vehicles would arrive with teen legs sticking out of the windows.

And, of course, there is the story about how the drive-in got its name. Supposedly, says Bratt, the sign company had a neon one that hadn’t been paid for — a restaurant called the Blue Fox Drive-In. Well, just add “Theater” underneath and you got a bargain deal. Above the snack stand is the projection room.

It is still using the same projector as when the drive-in opened — the Century Model SA, Serial No. 6019. It is a workhorse in the industry and has been working just fine through all the decades, just some minor tuneups.

Soon, it’ll be worth not much more than scrap value.

The old-fashioned machines that seemed so romantic as the film wound through have been replaced by a 2½-by-3½-foot black box that is the digital projector, plus a computer server and a laptop.

The movie itself?

It is shipped to the theater in a metal hard drive like you’d see in a home computer, except it has a monster memory that can hold six full-length movies. The hard drive is “ingested” into the server and won’t play unless digitally unlocked with an emailed password, and it’ll only stay unlocked for a certain period of time.

For the studios, the math is simple.

A typical two-hour movie like “Prometheus” takes up a little over two miles of film.

It costs $1,200 to $1,500 for each print.

A widely released film like “Prometheus” opened in some 3,400 theaters, says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners.

You go digital, “and you save a billion in striking prints and shipping costs,” says Corcoran. He says three-quarters of movie screens already have switched to the new format.

“Sometime in 2013, the major studios will basically stop distributing movies on film,” says Corcoran.

The financial crunch being played out at the Blue Fox is going on in small towns around the state and across the country.

On Vashon Island, Eileen Wolcott and her husband, Gordon, bought the Vashon Theatre in 2003 — selling some investment rental property to pay $520,000 for the theater building and parking lot, and $90,000 for the business.

“We’re very much movie lovers,” she says.

But after expenses, the theater maybe makes $10,000 profit a year, she says. The couple needs the income from Gordon’s job as a captain in the Seattle Fire Department.

Stepping in to help the theater has been a Vashon nonprofit called Island GreenTech, which helps small businesses.

One of the group’s directors is Tag Gornall, the retired veterinarian known for his expertise with whales.

The nonprofit wants to buy the digital equipment, and then lease it and eventually sell it to the Vashon Theatre.

Says Gornall, “People have a tendency to forget how much these one-screen theaters play in the organic nature of a town. They’re a gathering place where we can get together as a community, perhaps watch a film or performance, laugh and cry with each other. You don’t get community when you sit and watch something by yourself.”

The group has raised around $12,000 so far.

Just in case, though, the Wolcotts also plan to apply for a bank loan.

Still, sometimes the fundraising does miraculously work. That happened with the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend.

It is owned by Rocky Friedman, who reopened the 1907 movie house in 1992, having sold shares in a corporation to fund the business.

The Rose has two screens, and so needed digital equipment for both.

Friedman began fundraising, selling nameplates on the chairs in the theaters at $500 each. Bronze stars with your name placed on the wall went for $500 to $5,000 each.

The campaign began in January. In less than two months, says Friedman, “I raised just over $200,000.”

The digital equipment has been installed, and Friedman says audiences comment on the stunning visual quality.

He says that as he planned the change to digital, he felt quite emotional about the old 35-millimeter Simplex film projectors that had served him so well.

“I was gonna put the projectors in ministorage. But as I was disassembling the equipment, I thought, ‘This is crazy. Why am I saving this? This is scrap metal,’” says Friedman.

He now says that one of the projectors might be displayed at the theater.

The other will be junked.

With change, you gotta put the sentimentality stuff aside.

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