VINELAND - Dr. John DeLeonardis was faced with a big decision this year about the future of the Delsea Drive-In, the state's last standing outdoor movie theater.
Like many of the 357 drive-ins remaining across the United States, the Delsea screened 35mm film prints last year of "The Dark Knight Rises," "Brave," and other first-run Hollywood movies.
But more studios are phasing out film in favor of an all-digital distribution system that relies on state-of-the-art projectors, each of which costs $70,000 or more.
The Delsea draws big crowds nightly from Wednesday through Saturday for first-run movies on its two enormous screens. But converting the two projectors to digital would cost DeLeonardis in excess of $140,000 – more than three times the cost of the old film projectors.
"The choice was to do it or sell the place," said DeLeonardis, of Bridgeton, the drive-in's owner who also practices pediatrics in Cumberland County.
It's an agonizing choice facing the nation's last remaining drive-ins and small movie theaters.
The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association figures 50 to 60 theaters have converted. At least one operator decided to close instead, but many more will be making a similar cost-benefit decision or risk losing the ability to show future Hollywood blockbusters, such as the upcoming sequel to "Avatar."
The number of American drive-ins peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s. Now there are just 357.
"Everyone knows eventually that you'll be digital or you'll close your doors," says Walt Effinger, whose Skyvue Drive-In in Lancaster, Ohio, has been showing movies on an 80-foot screen since 1948.
"Some will. If you're not doing enough business to justify the expense, you're just going to have to close up," he said.
The digital transformation has been underway in the film industry for more than a decade because of the better picture and sound quality and the ease of delivery - no more huge reels of film. While some directors remain devoted to film, some production companies already are phasing out traditional 35mm film, and it's expected to disappear gradually over the next few years.
DeLeonardis bought the Delsea in 2003 and reopened it a year later with about 30 employees. It's a seasonal business that is open from March to December, weather permitting. But even in a New Jersey summer, operating can be tricky.
"We had a lot of rain this summer. Even the threat of rain can be bad for business when the weatherman - or whether-or-not man - is wrong," he said.
And then there are the movies themselves, some of which have been lackluster this summer. "The Lone Ranger" was a colossal box-office bomb.
DeLeonardis said he always has been a fan of drive-ins. He decided his business - the last drive-in left in New Jersey - was worth the investment. He applied for a15-year $130,000 loan through Vineland's Urban Enterprise Zone.
He found supporters and movie buffs in the city's Department of Economic Development.
"We thought it was a good idea," Director Sandra Forosisky said.
She said she used to go to drive-ins when she was a little girl, and later with dates while in high school.
"He's one of the nation's last operating drive-ins. It was part of Vineland's history. We thought it was great that he took a property that was closed for many years and reopened it. To be competitive, he had to switch to digital," she said.
The drive-in was a big part of South Jersey's nostalgic past and remains a tourism draw for Cumberland County, she said.
"When they open each night, the line of cars is down the shoulder of the road," she said.
DeLeonardis said the possibility of rapid changes in digital technology added more potential risk to the investment. Projectors are susceptible to technology-lag if the industry moves to a different format, he said.
But he was able to find a maker who could adjust to that possibility if necessary, he said.
"This was part of the problem. You have laser lighting now. That's where they're going with it. What if it's only a three-year transition?" he said. "But the projector we have is adaptable to a different light source."
DeLeonardis made the switch in March in a transition that went smoothly. The picture quality is even better and brighter than he imagined, he said.
It's the difference between a picture-tube set and a high-definition flat-screen.
"It's more high-tech now - all computer components. I'm a gearhead guy, so I could fix our old projector pretty well," he said, adding the digital system allows the manufacturer to troubleshoot his equipment remotely now. "They can access you in real time. That helps."
One innovation remains - the Delsea's restaurant. Like movie theaters, drive-ins make a significant chunk of their earnings from concessions.
DeLeonardis created a drive-in menu to attract foodies, with pulled-pork sandwiches, shrimp kebabs, eggplant parmesan, low-carb offerings including pizza Margherita and treats such as chocolate malts and shakes.
"If we didn't sell concessions, we wouldn't be here," he said. "We keep our prices affordable."
DeLeonardis said the Delsea Drive-In is nicely situated to bring Hollywood to Cumberland County for another generation.
"It's a social experience. People gather here from all over to enjoy a nice outing," he said. "You won't get a better deal than two first-run movies for $9."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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