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Drive-in faces long road to digital projection

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The two-screen Family Drive-In Theatre, located on U.S. 11 south of Stephens City needs to raise about $140,000 to pay for the conversion to digital projection. Linda Ash/Daily

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Families pick a spot in front of the screen early in the evening well before the show begins at the Family Drive-In Theatre near Stephens City this week. Linda Ash/Daily

By Sally Voth - svoth@nvdaily.com

As technology threatens to drive it out of business, the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City is turning to its fans for help.

The two-screen outdoor cinema needs to raise about $140,000 to pay for the conversion to digital projection, according to Jim Kopp, who has been leasing it for several years from Tim Dalke, whose father built it along U.S. 11 south of Stephens City in 1956.

"The studios are saying we all have to go digital," Kopp said as he prepared to drive to North Carolina on Monday afternoon. "Right now, they haven't set a particular date. The best speculation from the industry says it will be mid-2013."

He said movie studios are pushing for digital projection because it's so much cheaper than film. And, while owners of traditional indoor movie theaters have gotten financial help from movie studios in making the transition, the same hasn't happened with drive-ins, according to Kopp.

"Again, they forget us," he said. "They're telling all the theaters that by mid-2013 you better be digital, or you will not be a movie theater. There's a couple studios that are very adamant about it."

Kopp said he believes one of the screens will require a $59,000 projector, while the other will need a smaller one that costs around $55,000. The need to upgrade the sound systems, and to put in heating and cooling systems in the projection booths, will further drive up the costs, he said.

There are some advantages to being digital, Kopp acknowledged.

"One, you get a clearer picture," he said. "It's going to look like you're watching high-definition."

Plus, there will be the opportunity to offer alternate content, such as sporting events or concerts, Kopp said.

"It does give us more of an option than just running movies," he said. "No one else that I know of does the best of Sundance [Film Festival] films."

Kopp envisions showing some of the festival's best films in the spring.

"But, the biggest problem we have is trying to get the financing," he said. "We're going to try to raise it as best we can."

The best way to do so is through concession-stand sales, Kopp said. He said only about 30 cents of every dollar of the movie ticket's price goes to the theater, with the rest going to the rental of the film.

The Family Drive-In is also offering various items, such as T-shirts, cups and other collectibles for sale, according to its website. Finally, those who donate $15 or more to the campaign will have their names added to a trailer that will be made next year.

"It will just be like movie credits," Kopp said. "It's just our way of saying thank you."

Additionally, fundraisers are planned, and he is exploring the possibility of grants.

Bill Sirbaugh, executive director of the Small Business Development Center in Middletown, said the SBDC could work with Kopp, but isn't sure what aid would be available since all theaters have had to do the conversion.

"I think the drive-in is a unique experience and there's not an abundance of them any longer," he said. "We would love to have a chance to talk with him and see what we can do for him."

Retired from the Library of Congress, Kopp has a passion for the drive-in. He'd been living in Warrenton and patronizing the theater when he told Dalke he'd always wanted to run one should the opportunity arise.

Several years before leasing the Stephens City site, Kopp bought a drive-in in Raleigh, N.C., he'd seen for sale on eBay. It was in such bad shape, the consultant Kopp hired advised him to never again buy anything off of the auction website. Kopp and his wife drove between the two theaters for several years, but have since sold the North Carolina drive-in to a young couple.

Kopp said the Family Drive-In has long had a good reputation thanks to the Dalke family. He is optimistic the all-American pastime will continue in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, and says about $9,000 has been raised so far.

"I don't expect the public to raise all $140,000 of it," he said. "Whatever they help us with...We have a lot of folks that love that theater. It's all appreciated. We just want to keep it alive.

"We're really, really appreciative of the community's support and the love for the theater. I can't tell you how many people come to us and just say, 'We love this place.' It's a lot of fun."

1 Comment


Even though they are an hour away, I love going to their theater. It takes me back to my childhood in upstate NY where we had three drive-in theaters to choose from. Unfortunately, they are all gone now, victims of urban sprawl. I'll be happy to donate to their fund!

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