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Article posted: 9/19/2013 5:30 AM

McHenry drive-in wins contest to go digital

By Christopher Placek

McHenry Outdoor Theater owner Scott Dehn had been trying to raise enough money to pay for a digital projector that would enable his drive-in -- one of two remaining in the suburbs -- to survive.

But efforts over the past year to raise the estimated $130,000 to buy a new projector and overhaul the projection booth have been largely unsuccessful.

No worry, though: the 75-year-old McHenry drive-in will get its new projector after all -- at no cost -- after receiving enough votes in an online contest aimed at helping mom-and-pop drive-ins across the country keep their doors open.

"This was the hurdle for the drive-in to remain open," Dehn said. "We're in it for the long haul.

The 75-year-old McHenry Outdoor Theater, at 1510 Chapel Hill Road in McHenry, is one of five drive-ins that will receive a new Christie Digital Systems projector from the Project Drive-In campaign sponsored by Honda, which is paying for the projectors.

Dehn got the news this weekend, when a film crew purporting to be a media outlet caught him by surprise.

"Fifteen minutes into the interview, they said, 'This is the last question: How does it feel to go digital?' I was frustrated. I said, 'You don't seem to understand -- we are hoping to win (the contest).' They were laughing. They said, 'No Scott, you don't understand. We're from Honda. You did win it.'"

"Honestly I just fell to my knees," Dehn said.

The online campaign resulted in more than 2 million votes cast between Aug. 9 and Sept. 9, though Honda officials didn't say exactly where McHenry finished. But the fact the theater finished in the top 5 out of 120 drive-ins, Dehn says, is amazing because his theater didn't make the ballot until nine days after the contest began.

He had been trying to get into the contest with little luck after placing multiple phone calls to Honda. A Huntley resident who works for the carmaker -- and regularly attends movies at the McHenry -- was able to get the theater on the list, Dehn said.

"If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't even have been on there," he said.

Dehn also credits the power of the old and new media -- interviews he did with newspapers and radio stations, and postings he made on the theater's Facebook page -- in helping spread the word about Project Drive-In. Visitors to the campaign website were able to vote up to two times a day for their favorite theater.

Dehn said he also thinks the theater's location in the well-populated suburbs gave it an advantage over others.

"A lot of these drive-ins are in the middle of a cornfield," he said.

There's fewer and fewer of them around -- 357 nationwide, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. That's down from some 4,000 drive-ins operating in the 1950s.

Those that remain and hope to stay open have had to face the prospect of converting to digital or closing, because Hollywood movie studios have started phasing out the release of movies on traditional 35 mm film.

Some, like the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago, self-funded a digital conversion. Cascade owner Jeff Kohlberg paid $100,000 for a new Christie digital projector, which was installed in April.

The McHenry drive-in will be showing movies on its old 1970s-era projector until the last weekend in September, when the theater closes for the year. When it reopens in May, the new digital system should be up and running, Dehn said.

He plans to have the current projector and the original projector from the theater's opening in the 1940s on permanent display near the concession stand.

"I'll miss 35 mm film. I really will," Dehn said. "But I'm looking forward to the higher quality product we'll be able to show our customers."

Honda officials say they've extended their online campaign and plan to award another four drive-ins with new projectors on Monday.

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