An hour before the gates open at the Brazos Drive-In, Elizabeth Gammons of Tolar is waiting.
With her four children and sister-in-law’s family along for the night, Gammons arrived early to snag a spot on the front row.
By the time the gate swings open, more than 100 vehicles, mostly pickup trucks and SUV’s, stretch for several blocks along the shoulder of Pearl Street.
For Gammons, the drive-in is a perfect place for a perfect family outing.
“The kids can run around and play, the adults can talk and you’re outdoors,” Gammons said. “And I just love the history and the nostalgia of the place.”
As she speaks, the Brazos has sprung to life.
Plastic tables, chairs, and blankets have been set up on the ground or in the beds of pickup trucks. In front of the giant wooden tower that houses the huge screen, a pickup football game has broken out. Meanwhile, the line for the indoor concession stand, which includes a 60-year-old popcorn popper, is winding out the door.
Everything about the Brazos, which dates back to 1952 — and a number of other mom-and-pop drive-ins across the U.S. — is old school, including an outdated film projector.
Because Hollywood distributors are moving away from film and toward digital releases, if the projector is not replaced with a digital model, the Brazos could soon see its screen go dark. It’s much the same in Graham, where its 65-year-old drive-in also needs a digital projector. Both venues are participating in an online contest sponsored by Honda to give away at least five digital projectors to the drive-ins that receive the most votes. More than 100 drive-ins are vying for the digital projectors in the contest that ends Sept. 9.
“I’m not trying to doom and gloom, but spending $75,000 to $100,000 at age 62 doesn’t really make sense to me,” said Jennifer Miller, the Brazos’ owner. “It would probably take us 10 to 15 years to recoup that cost.”
But with a packed drive-in for Friday’s double feature of Despicable Me 2 and Planes, Miller sounded more hopeful as she looked out at the crowd.
“I don’t think we’ll close,” Miller said. “I don’t think Granbury will let us.”
Using zombies in Graham
Eighty-five miles to the northwest, the Graham Drive-In, which opened in 1948, shares the same combination of history and family-friendly atmosphere as the Brazos.
Managers at the Graham Drive-In have tried using humor to attract attention in their quest for votes. In a YouTube video, they have jokingly suggested zombies once roamed the grounds.
With customers from as far away as Wichita Falls, the Graham Drive-In thought a zombie video was a way to get votes from those patrons. It apparently is working since it had more than 8,600 views as of Monday and had inspired a Japanese newspaper to recently call for interviews.
The video idea came from T-shirts that drive-in managers J. and Erin Hawkins often wear, claiming that the drive-in has been zombie-free since 1977.
“Basically, every drive-in has the same story so we were trying to do something to stand out,” J. Hawkins said. “Nobody is working harder than us to try and win this contest.”
Both Graham and Granbury are thriving small towns, with populations of about 9,000 and 8,000, respectively. Both sit next to popular lakes — Possum Kingdom in Graham and Lake Granbury — and also draw tourists to their active downtown areas.
If neither Graham nor the Brazos wins a digital projector, both drive-ins will probably rely on local fund-raising or a Kickstarter online campaign to help raise enough money.
Drive-ins will be lost
It’s not clear when Hollywood distributors will make the switch from film to digital, but many drive-in owners say they assumed film would disappear in 2014.
But this isn’t the first time drive-ins have threatened.
The first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey in 1933, and at their peak in 1958 there more than 4,000 in the United States. Since then, drive-ins have constantly battled changes in society and technology. Between 1978 and 1988, more than 1,000 closed, as everything from rising real estate values to the VCR were blamed.
Over the last decade, the pace of closings has slowed. Now, there are 357 drive-in theaters remaining nationwide that have a total of 604 screens, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Texas has 15 drive-ins with a total of 26 screens, including Fort Worth’s Coyote Drive-In, which opened earlier this spring just north of downtown.
The Coyote uses digital projectors, and about 145 outdoor theaters across the U.S. have converted to digital, including the six-screen Galaxy Drive-In near Ennis.
Even as the Coyote drive-in has staked out new territory by marketing itself as an urban drive-in, Coyote Theaters Chief Executive Officer Brady Wood, said he doesn’t want to see any historic ones shuttered. He is planning a fund-raising concert next spring to help those that haven’t converted.
“I don’t want Granbury to close,” Wood said. “I don’t want Graham to close. We’ll help them as much as we can. I don’t feel like we’re competitors.”
“We will undoubtedly lose some drive-ins,’ Vincent said. “We hope it’s just for the short-term. Those that have converted say their business is better, the screen is brighter and they have access to more product.”
‘Why didn’t we try to save it?’
When many of the major indoor multiplexes switched to digital projectors, they were helped by a virtual print fee program, a subsidy to help offset the cost of the equipment. The program was made available to drive-in theaters earlier this year — but with an extremely short deadline to convert.
Pam Scott, the Graham Drive-In owner, said there wasn’t enough time to decide. She also owns Graham’s only indoor theater, The National Theatre on the town square, and converted its three screens to digital after studying the costs for more than a year.
“We had them come out to the drive-in, it took them a month to get them out here and another month to give us an estimate,” Scott said. “By that time, we were right up against the deadline. We really didn’t have any time to get it installed.”
Some drive-in theaters that have already made the switch insist it is worth the investment.
“I’m hoping against hope that a number of these owners see their way clear to convert,” said D. Edward Vogel, owner of Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore, Md. and a board member in the drive-in owners association.
“One of the advantages of the new technology is you can do more than just show movies,” Vogel said. “You can show concerts. You can show the Super Bowl and have a giant tailgate party. You just have to think outside the box.”
While they are still trying to find a way to make the switch, both the Brazos and the Graham are vowing to stay open as long as they can. Scott, who purchased the Graham drive-in six years ago, said she hopes the rest of the town agrees it’s worth keeping.
“There are just things in your community that make it special,” Scott said. “The drive-in is one of those things that if you don’t pay attention and it’s gone ... you’ll say, ‘Why didn’t we try to save it?’’’