SACO – To continue screening the latest releases, Ry Russell, who operates the Saco Drive-In on Route 1, needs to switch to a digital projector.
The problem is, the cost to switch from traditional film to a digital format could be as high as $90,000, which Russell, as a small business owner, doesn’t have on hand.
And so, in order to make sure the Saco Drive-In, which was established in 1939 and is the country’s second oldest such facility, doesn’t have to close, Russell is turning to social media. He has begun a Facebook campaign to raise the money needed to purchase a digital projector, and will host a press conference next week to highlight the specific details.
His problem is not unique. Russell said he’s seen media reports that as many as 50 percent of the drive-ins left in the United States and more than 10,000 movie screens across the country will go dark sometime this year because they can’t afford to make the switch to digital.
As part of the Facebook fundraiser, Russell has asked customers and fans of the drive-in to send in stories and photos about what makes the drive-in special to them, which will be put together into an e-book and given to people who make donations toward the new projector.
The e-book will also be used as a fundraising tool on its own, Russell said, and is designed to show potential donors just what the drive-in means to people for whom it’s a summer tradition, as well as those just discovering what the drive-in provides as a unique movie-going experience.
Russell took over operating the drive-in, along with two friends, in May 2011 when all three were still business students at the University of Southern Maine. Since then, Russell has graduated with a degree in marketing and is now running the drive-in on his own.
While Russell was still able to screen many of the blockbuster films last year, he said, getting the new titles was difficult and he had to be “very aggressive (and) submit requests months in advance” instead of the week before, as he’d been able to do initially.
Even with his best efforts, Russell said, “we still missed some great features because of their scarcity, and this change (to digital) is happening fast with some companies saying they are moving exclusively to digital for 2013.”
Russell said at some point, all movie companies plan to make the transition to digital because of the reduced production cost.
“That change is going to take place very rapidly in the next year and we want to be proactive before a switch turns and we will have to close,” he said.
The reason he’s launching the fundraising campaign on Facebook, where the drive-in has more than 16,000 fans, is because that’s the platform where Russell interacts with his customers.
“We are a very transparent organization with active social (media) interaction,” he said. “We do not have a website. We utilize Facebook for everything and we wanted to stay consistent.”
Russell said the response to his request for stories and photos for the e-book has been “overwhelming.”
“I found myself sitting on my couch reading these stories and (it brought) tears to my eyes. People have captured exactly what I want the drive-in to be,” he said. “I have heard stories of struggling families that cannot afford nights out and yet the drive-in provides an opportunity for them to get out with the family.”
Russell can remember growing up in Saco and facing tough financial times himself.
“I know exactly what these families are going through,” he said. “I am not running (the drive-in to turn) a mass profit. I am running this to provide fun for the family. There is no better feeling for me than walking back to the snack bar from the box office and hearing the laughter of hundreds of children because of the great Disney flicks that come in.”
Russell believes the drive-in is still so popular with locals and summer visitors alike because it not only offers a good value – this past summer the entry fee was $15 per car – but also because of the overall experience.
“A traditional theater provides one uniform way to consume movies – sitting in the dark in your own chair and you have to be quiet,” he said. “At the drive-in, you are in your own car, so if you want to chat and text you disturb no one else. I have (also) found that it makes it easy to forget the stressors of life and get away for a few hours.”
State Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, is a strong supporter of the drive-in and of what Russell is trying to accomplish with it. He said the drive-in “is much more than a valued local business, it represents a direct connection to Saco’s dynamic culture and history.”
“We have an opportunity to preserve it for future generations of Saco residents, Mainers and people across the U.S. who have come to know our drive-in as a must-visit family attraction,” he added.
Chenette has been helping Russell spread the word “and rally our neighbors behind this project. It’s really awe-inspiring to see how many people care about this place. You never really stop to think about how much something means to you and your community until it’s not there.”
According to a Jan. 27 Boston Globe article, the switch to digital projection is threatening many local, small independent movie facilities like the Saco Drive-In.
That story said one of the reasons movie studios are pushing so hard toward the conversion to a digital film format is because they could save millions of dollars. It costs about $1,500 to make and ship a 35mm print of a major studio release, but the cost of a hard drive containing a digital movie is about $150.
There are other benefits, as well, the Globe story said. A digital film will never scratch or break and it looks just as good no matter how many times it’s played. Plus, with a digital projector, a theater can offer alternate programming like broadcasts of live opera, concerts and stage plays, along with films outside the standard distribution channels.