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Going digital is the latest threat to drive-ins

Paul and Ann Dimoush, who own the Midway Drive-In Theater in Osawatomie, Kan., face closure unless they can raise enough money to buy a digital projector.

Paul Dimoush, owner of the Midway Drive-In Theater in Osawatomie, Kan., prepared film before running a movie recently. The community hopes to raise enough money to buy a digital projector so the theater can stay open.

The Kansas City Star

It survived the first onslaught — the video rental stores that began popping up in the ’70s and ’80s.

It survived the rise of the great American megaplex, those 20-screen mammoths that rose like fortresses in the suburban pockets of nearby Johnson County. And the recent advent of Internet TV, which has allowed consumers to stream movies and cable series from their televisions, computers and smartphones.

For six decades, the Midway Drive-In Theater, that dusty oasis located a mile and a half or so off U.S. 169 in Miami County, faced a steady stream of threats to its future. But the big screen still stands.

“We’re surviving,” said 75-year-old Paul Dimoush, who runs the Midway with his wife, Ann.

Now, though, the tiny one-screen, 250-car drive-in is faced with its latest — and potentially most daunting — affront.

With film distributors’ switch to digital drawing ever closer, the Midway, which is only equipped to use 35 mm film, is struggling to make the transition. While saving distributors a considerable sum of money, going digital requires theaters to purchase new projectors at a cost of up to $100,000 per screen.

It’s the most recent hit to an industry that has endured plenty of them since its 1950s and ’60s heyday. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, the number of operating drive-in movie theaters in America has dwindled to 357, down from more than 4,000 in the late 1950s. In Missouri, just 13 drive-in theaters remain, with a total of 19 screens; Kansas features seven theaters and eight working screens.

What those numbers might look like a year from now, when digital is expected to be the norm, is far from clear. But it’s safe to assume that smaller, independently owned drive-ins will be hit.

“It’s way too early for the association to speak to it,” said D. Edward Vogel, a board member with the drive-in theater owners association. “But I can tell you that there isn’t a board member or a member that isn’t concerned that we could lose a lot.”

With the help of a community not ready to part with one of the area’s oldest institutions — it opened in 1953 — the Dimoushes are gearing up for a final fight.

Since taking over legal possession of the Midway in 2008, the couple have made the theater their own. Nearly everything on-site features their fingerprints, from the 117 speaker poles (they dug all the holes themselves) to the fencing surrounding the lot (they built that by hand, too).

Though the drive-in is only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, the Dimoushes typically spend about 50 hours a week at the old theater. They take the tickets and operate the projector and clean the restrooms. On movie nights, they stay until 4 a.m., filling up bags of trash left behind by moviegoers.

Community leaders, led by councilwoman Tamara Maichel, have alreadyoffered their support, organizing everything from charity golf tournaments to carhop fundraisers in an effort to help the Dimoushes’ theater survive. In a month’s time, they’ve collected roughly $5,300, and the hope is to raise a good portion of the $75,000 the Midway will need to upgrade.

If they can collect $30,000, Paul Dimoush believes, they’d be able to work with the bank for the rest.

“We didn’t think this community would pull together like they have,” Ann Dimoush said. “But they have. … Gosh, it’s amazing how they’ve pulled together.”

It’s not just drive-ins feeling the pressure of the coming change.

Independently owned theaters across the metro have faced the same struggles with varying levels of success. Kansas City’s Screenland Armour Theatre recently succeeded in a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to facilitate a switch to digital, though Higginsville’s popular Davis Theatre didn’t fare as well, falling short in its quest to upgrade.

In Kansas City, Kan., the one-screen Boulevard Drive-In Theatre installed a top-of-the-line digital 4K resolution projection system. The upgrade was costly, but the boost in picture quality has helped draw crowds reminiscent of 50 years ago.

“Numbers are just rising since I put the 4K digital in,” said Brian Neal, the grandson of Boulevard owner Wes Neal. Brian serves a number of roles at the theater, including treasurer. “We’re blowing away last year’s numbers. And last year, we blew away the year before’s numbers.”

The problem, though, is that drive-in theaters aren’t often owned by individuals with easy access to the $60,000 to $100,000 — per screen — necessary to equip themselves with digital technology. Many, like Midway, are mom-and-pop-type venues, run by long-time owners whose joy of operating a drive-in has far exceeded the profits.

By Vogel’s estimate, only 50 or so of America’s 604 drive-in screens today show digital.

“We want to do it,” said Daryl Smith, who owns both the I-70 Four Screen in Kansas City and the Twin Drive-In in Independence and estimates conversion would cost $500,000. “We just have to figure out how to afford the transition.”

Even Neal admits that without his family’s second business — a year-round, weekend Swap ‘n’ Shop that has traditionally brought in more money than the drive-in — the Boulevard would have likely been forced to close.

“My grandfather’s been in the (drive-in) business 60 years,” Neal said, “and if it wasn’t for Swap ‘n’ Shop, there’s no way he would have been able to afford for us to go to digital.”

Of course, small towns have a way of rallying around a cause. And the drive-in can be a significant piece of the town’s social fabric.

Since starting the fundraising effort, Maichel and the Dimoushes have been inundated with stories of the theater’s local significance. The onslaught of nostalgia has reinforced their belief that the Midway is too important to be turned over to weeds.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be able to raise the money,” Maichel said. “It might be tough at the end, but we’ll find a solution to the problem. Somehow, some way, we’ll work it out so we can have the drive-in next year.”

To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816-234-4039 or send email to darnett@kcstar.com.

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