When Granbury’s Brazos Drive-In was put on the market two months ago, the risk of the historic drive-in going dark seemed very real.
Without the conversion to a digital projector, the Brazos, which opened in 1952, was facing an uncertain future since movie studios have begun phasing out film prints of movies. In January, Paramount became the first studio to stop making film prints, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The impending loss of film has hit mom-and-pop drive-ins particularly hard since many don’t have the financial resources to invest in new equipment.
But Friday and today, the Brazos is reopening with a double feature of RoboCop and Monuments Men as well as having plans to show 35mm films on weekends for the rest of March.
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“People around Granbury are already talking about us reopening,” Miller said. “They just assumed it was closing for good.”
More importantly, Miller now has plans to install a digital projector, meaning the outdoor drive-in should be able to keep showing movies indefinitely.
Miller, 62, who is year older than the drive-in, said she began to lose hope last summer when movie studios started talking about no longer making film prints.
“It was looking like we might be able to make it to the end of summer but that probably would have been it,” Miller said.
But that was before Miller picked up an envelope on her desk and learned of projection company that was offering a lease-to-purchase agreement. Under this arrangement, Miller said her overall cost is far less than the $100,000 price she was quoted last year.
“It’s about half the price of what I was being told last summer,” Miller said. “It’s assumable so a new buyer can take over the payments. This was the best way to go. This is what my CPA told me to do.”
While the switch to digital is a significant step for the movie industry, the Brazos still looks much as it did during the height of post-war car culture of the 1950s. The vintage concession stand still has a patio with old metal chairs out front for those who don’t want to watch the movie in their cars or in the bed of their pickups.
The Brazos is one of the city’s historic landmarks, which means it must have the approval of Granbury’s Historic Commission to make improvements to the exterior, including its 70-foot screen tower.
Drive-ins have been around since 1933, when the first one opened in New Jersey, reaching their height of popularity in 1958, when there more than 4,000 in the United States.
From 1978 to 1988, more than 1,000 closed with everything from rising property values to the popularity of the VCR given as reasons for the demise.
Over the last decade, the slew of closings has slowed, and drive-ins became known for their family-friendly atmosphere.
At the end of last year, 357 drive-ins were still open nationally, with a total of 604 screens, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
In Texas, there were 15 drive-ins with a total of 26 screens, including Fort Worth’s Coyote Drive-In.
About half the screens had converted to digital by last fall, according to the drive-in association.
But Kipp Sherer, who runs the Drive-Ins.com website, said there won’t be a clear picture of how many drive-ins have converted for a few more months.
“Until May, we just really don’t have a good idea who’s going to reopen,” Sherer said.
By Sherer’s count, 340 were still operating by the end of last season, but he said some will likely close for good.
“I would estimate 40 or 50 of them are really in danger of closing, but that’s a really rough number,” Sherer said.
Miller still plans to sell the Brazos. She is asking $575,000 for the 5-acre property that sits next to Granbury High School.
But now she feels much better about the Brazos’ future.
“I think buyers want to see it open and people coming back to it again,” Miller said. “I’m just ready to slow down and not worry about it anymore. But I’m happy to keep it open until I find a buyer.”