There are few drive-in movie theaters left in the Chicago area — and one is just a stone's throw from Geneva.
Only about a dozen drive-ins still operate in the entire state, according to Drive-Ins.com, a website whose database is a museum of sorts for a once-ubiquitous movie venue that has all but disappeared.
Drive-ins like West Chicago’s Cascade, 1100 E. North Ave., offer a nostalgic experience of a past when outdoor movie screens were more common across the country and were an inexpensive respite for families, couples on dates, or groups of friends wanting to break from the daily grind and enjoy an inexpensive evening of entertainment.
But the past must catch up with the present, at least in terms of technology. The filmmaking industry has adapted to digital technology, making great strides in enhancing images and sound and creating special effects. But there is a cost-savings for movie distributors, which are forcing theaters to adapt, installing pricey new high-definition digital projection systems. Theaters have until the new year, 2013, to switch over to the new technology. Drive-ins like the Cascade are no exception.
The conversion, however, is expensive. According to a January 2012 article by The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch.com, which predicts the demise of smaller cinemas and art houses, the cost of converting a movie theater to digital projection can range from $60,000 to $100,000 — the higher end of the range is for those theaters wanting to accommodate 3D technology.
The switch to digital is accelerating the demise of film, too. Industry consultant MKPE states on its website that Kodak and Fuji are the only two manufacturers of print stock, which is used to make the huge reels of film that theaters traditionally have projected for their audiences. Fuji will end its print stock production in March 2013. The future manufacture of print stock by Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy in January 2012, is in the hands of the bankruptcy court and unlikely to last through the end of 2013.
Those traditional movie reels cost distributors $1,500 to $2,000 each. The reels alone for a big flick opening simultaneously in many theaters could cost a distributor millions. With much cheaper discs, or even downloads, distributors could cut their costs exponentially. That puts the onus, however, on the theaters and drive-ins to convert to digital technology. But a $60,000 to $100,000 conversion is a big cost to swallow for independent operators.
“About 85 to 90 percent of the chain theaters already have converted to digital,” Cascade owner Jeffrey Kohlberg said on Friday, Oct .26. “But the independent owners find it hard to convert — drive-ins in particular” because of such a large expense.
Kohlberg has been in the drive-in theater business all his life and has no plans to close.
When the Cascade’s season ends in November, he plans to modernize its projection system during his down months — December through February — and be ready to open as a digital drive-in come March 2013.
On Oct. 20, he began a fundraising campaign on KickStarter, a fundraising website, with hopes of getting pledges from patrons, who in return would receive various privileges or price breaks.
“We heard of a (small) theater in Barrington that set a goal of $100,000 but brought in $175,000,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to work for us.”
To date, 27 backers have pledged $858 toward the Cascade’s digital conversion. The KickStarter campaign ends Nov. 9. Under KickStarter’s rules, if he fails to make goal, the money goes back to those who pledged it.
But Kohlberg said he has other options. He had hoped the KickStarter campaign would allow him to avoid financing the conversion.
“We’re looking at other possibilities … we’re getting bids and getting our ducks in a row,” he said.
He loves the business — he started out working as a boy at his father’s drive-in during the 1950s. As an adult, he has owned and operated drive-in theaters for more than 50 years. He has had the Cascade for 23 years and owns another, the Keno, in Kenosha, Wis.
“I’ve been in the drive-in business my whole life,” Kohlberg said. “It’s a great value — $9 for two first-run movies is a great value.”
Many indoor venues today charge that much or more for just one movie.
But times have changed. Back in their heyday, air-conditioning was a luxury few could afford. Today, few want to leave their homes when it’s hot and humid.
Back then, drive-ins could count on packing in movie-goers on the weekends. When he first took over the Cascade, for example, Kohlberg said, the Cascade sometimes had to close its gates early because the theater lot filled so quickly. During the summer, the drive-in was full nearly every night.
“From June through August (when school is out), we totally depend on our families,” he said. “They come in and bring chairs … and the kids sit in front the cars while the parents stay inside” — or vice versa.
The Cascade, 1100 E. North Ave. (Route 64), West Chicago, the nearest drive-in to the Tri-Cities, is open from March through November. To learn more the Cascade, it’s prices, gate times and what’s showing, go to http://www.cascadedrivein.com/.