Expensive upgrades threaten future of drive-ins

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Drive-in movie theaters are dwindling in numbers because of expensive upgrades required to operate.

Tibbs Drive-In in Indianapolis opened in 1967 when the city had 17 drive-ins. Now, after hard times industry-wide, it’s the only one remaining.

In the 19 years since Agnes Quilling and her husband bought Tibbs Drive-In, this year brought their largest expense: the conversion to digital, which means no more 35mm film.

“You had to do it,” Quilling said of the estimated $300,000 cost to convert their four screens. “You had no choice, or close the doors.”

Years ago, drive-ins dotted the landscape of cities like Indianapolis, but now their future looks bleak because this digital switch priced many out of business.

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association said the industry peaked in 1958 when 4,062 drive-ins entertained movie goers.

Decades later, tastes have changed and operating costs have increased, shrinking that number to 348 drive-ins nationwide in 2013, 20 of which are in Indiana.

Quilling said her customers often make a night of it.

“You come at 7:30, you get your pizza, you go to the park, you play you have a good time,” she said. “The movie starts, your kids are in pajamas, they go to sleep.”

While more than half of the drive-ins nationwide made the digital switch, the rest saw its cost as their final curtain call. Many mom and pops simply can’t afford it.

Agnes said she’s lucky Indianapolis supported Tibbs Drive-In over the years, and they try to return that with a fair price: two movies for $10 a person.

“How to Train Your Dragon on screen 1, we’ve got Tommy Cruise on screen 4,” she said of their new releases. “There’s something for everybody here.”

Quilling even recalled that nostalgia that brings so many customers back.

“She said, ‘That’s the first place your grandpa ever kissed me,’” Quilling shared of a grandmother who recently visited with her grandkids. “She met her husband here, brought her kids, now she’s bringing her grandkids. What else can I say?”

Click here to learn more about Tibbs Drive-In.

Click here to learn more about the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

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