Digital projection has drive-in movie theaters reeling

But some proprietors aren't so fortunate.

The family of Gerry Herringer, owner of the Cottage View Drive-In in Cottage Grove, Minn., once owned 21 theaters in the Twin Cities. Converting his only remaining theater would cost Herringer about $75,000. Instead, he's selling the land to Wal-Mart.

"It's really kind of a stab in the heart to lose it," said Herringer, pausing to clear his throat. "It's a part of our family."

Box office data isn't tracked separately for drive-ins. Many are small, family-owned operations that don't publicly report financial information.

There are also small chains. West Wind, a seven-theater circuit based in San Rafael, Calif., does plan to convert all its screens in California, with company spokesman Tony Maniscalco saying revenue rose 43% over the last three years.

The first U.S. drive-in opened in Camden, N.J., in 1933. A year later, California's first drive-in opened at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards in Los Angeles, a city built for the car.

Juan Gonzales took his first drive-in job in 1974. As drive-ins slowly succumbed to changing tastes and became sites for retailers, Gonzales began moving from theater to theater as each shut down. He worked at the Sundown in Whittier, now a Home Depot; the Rosecrans in Paramount, now an El Pollo Loco and a Wendy's; and the Sepulveda, the 101 and the Van Nuys, all now gone.

"It was like a culture that began to disappear," Gonzales said. "A piece that is missing in the heart of California."

Some drive-ins remain as sites for concerts and swap meets, but the only drive-in left in Los Angeles and Orange counties that shows movies is the Vineland Drive-In off Interstate 10 in the City of Industry, which Gonzales manages. Renovating all four screens would cost more than $320,000, he said. Management is considering renting digital projectors as a stopgap for the next few years.

"We know it has to be done before the summer," Gonzales said. "We don't get digital, we don't get movies, we don't get business."

For drive-in fans, the cocoon of a car is again a novelty, and a blessing for those who want to text during movies, run to the snack bar multiple times or pay lower ticket prices. The theaters attract baby boomers who remember the drive-in era and young couples who've heard their parents reminisce about it.

Melanie Medina, 20, and her boyfriend Jesse Gaeta, 19, both from Highland Park, first visited the Vineland after hearing Medina's mother talk about going to the drive-in as a child. They've been back five times. They were sharing a hot dog and nachos at the snack bar before "Sinister" came on, a movie that had already left theaters.

"We like it because you can get out of your car and smoke and not miss anything," Gaeta said.