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Article updated: 7/21/2013 10:33 AM

McHenry drive-in fights to stay alive; Cascade goes digital

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Scott Dehn remembers as a little boy when his parents and grandmother would pack up the station wagon and take a family trip to the McHenry Outdoor Theater.

His first drive-in movie at age 6: "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

"I fell in love with movies and the industry from the first day we went there," said Dehn, now 36 and the theater's owner.

It's Dehn's passion for movies under the summertime stars that spurred him to take over full ownership of the theater last year. And it's also why he's committed to making sure the 75-year-old McHenry drive-in stays open to make memories for more families in the future.

His goal is to raise money to pay for new digital projection equipment that's necessary for the theater's survival, as Hollywood movie studios are phasing out the release of movies on 35 mm film.

Dehn is hoping his theater's digital conversion story will have a happy ending, like that of the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago, whose owners self-funded the estimated $100,000 cost to buy their digital projector. The system was installed in April and has been showing movies all summer.

The two remaining suburban drive-ins illustrate the successes and struggles mom-and-pop theater owners are having across the country as they face an impending ultimatum: Convert or close.

Hollywood studios haven't said exactly when films will no longer be distributed the old-fashioned way, but many in and around the movie business believe it's imminent.

John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, believes this will be the last summer to be able to get "substantially all" movies on film.

"Hollywood has not been very helpful in providing a hard-core date," said Vincent, who operates a drive-in in Cape Cod, Mass. "We've all assumed this will be the last summer for film, but nobody has come out and said, 'This will be the drop dead date for film.'"

He says one reason movie houses are moving completely toward digital is because it's far more expensive to produce 35 mm films. "The economics of it are disappearing pretty fast."

The McHenry

When Dehn entered the theater business in 2003, no one was thinking digital, he says. About five years later, that attitude changed.

"It became apparent, this is where it's going," Dehn said. "Even then, no one knew how quickly it would happen. Would it catch on?"

But the prospect of raising $130,000 -- the estimated cost to buy a digital projector and overhaul the projection booth that hasn't changed much since the 1940s -- has been daunting.

Last fall, Dehn tried to raise money via Kickstarter.com, which allows organizations to collect funds only if an established goal is met. Dehn set the goal at $100,000 but only received $36,000 in pledges, so he didn't collect any money.

This year, Dehn is trying to raise money through Indiegogo.com, which allows users to keep any funds raised -- minus a fee charged to use the website -- even if the ultimate goal isn't achieved.

The McHenry theater, at 1510 Chapel Hill Road, has also held special promotional nights to try to get as many people there as possible. Last fall, the theater hosted a "Back to the Future" weekend -- complete with an authentic DeLorean car on display courtesy of the Volo Auto Museum -- with proceeds from ticket sales going to the digital conversion fund.

Dehn has raised the urgency of his "Drive to Stay Alive" campaign by posting fliers, sending Facebook messages and making speeches before nightly double features to get the word out.

"We made it a point this year, that going into the season, it wasn't just to entertain everyone but also to educate everyone," Dehn said.

To date, the Indiegogo campaign has brought in about $2,600. Dehn didn't reveal how much the theater has collected, other than to say "we've got a long ways to go."

The good thing, he says, is that the fundraising effort has caught the attention of financial institutions and companies interested in helping. Some are willing to donate their time in kind, such as an electrician who promised to help install the digital projector and rewire the projection booth.

"It maybe right now doesn't translate to money in the bank, but there's a lot of support I think that will translate into this theater not closing," Dehn said.

A movie theater raising money for a digital conversion through public appeals isn't unprecedented. The Catlow Theater in Barrington collected $100,000 in just seven days last summer during an online fundraiser that enabled the 85-year-old theater to purchase a digital projector.

The Cascade

Jeff Kohlberg, owner of the Cascade in West Chicago, developed his love of the drive-in at an early age as well.

As a boy, he regularly went to work with his dad, who operated drive-ins in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.

Later, Jeff spent 27 years as a union theater projectionist.

Today, he operates Cascade, which has been open since 1961, and the Keno Drive-In in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.

So far, he's been able to pay for the cost of a new digital projector for Cascade, and he is considering buying one for Keno.

"I've been doing this since I was 8 years old, so this is worth it to me," Kohlberg said.

Before the new digital equipment arrived for the start of Cascade's 2013 season, projectionists did what they've always been doing at the theater at 1100 E. North Ave. They arrived hours before show time to prepare for that night's double feature by loading up large rotating "platters" with 35 mm film and then threading it through one of two projectors.

Now, that equipment has been removed and replaced with a machine that operates much like any modern day computer. Kohlberg receives an email containing files of movies every week; he puts those files on a USB key and inserts that into the projector. Movies have a limited play time of about two weeks.

Kohlberg pays a monthly fee for being in the digital network and has signed a yearly contract for maintenance of the machine.

"Sometimes old film would break. Sometimes we'd have trouble with a platter," Kohlberg said. "We don't have that anymore. Now we just press a button and the show goes on."

The picture is brighter and clearer than the old system, which didn't have bulbs as powerful, Kohlberg said.

The new system also works with the theater's old car speakers, of which there are about 1,000 scattered around the 28-acre site. As before, moviegoers also can listen on a low FM radio frequency.

The future

There are 357 remaining drive-in theaters nationwide, according to the most recent tally by the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. That's down from some 4,000 drive-ins operating in the 1950s.

Vincent, the association's president, says the organization hasn't yet tallied how many drive-ins have converted to digital, but from what he's seen anecdotally, he's "pleasantly surprised on how many have converted."

"One owner said come hell or high water, he wasn't going to convert. And then I see he's converted," Vincent said.

Kohlberg said he believes half the remaining drive-ins could close because they can't fund a conversion to digital.

Dehn said the McHenry theater has been able to "skate by," but he's hopeful his fundraising efforts will pay off.

"I do believe we're gonna have to make the change," Dehn said. "That ticking clock -- it's gonna end eventually."

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