Looming changes puts future of drive-ins in limbo

John Dretzel, an owner of the Huntington Drive-In Theatre, sets up his movie projector.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Spring is here, which means local drive-in movie theaters are open for the season, but the future of the family-owned businesses could be in jeopardy.

Many owners, including John and Nellie Dretzel, who own and operate the Huntington Drive-In Theatre, are near retirement.  To add to the problem, movie studios have said they will soon stop sending 35 mm film, and will only use digital copies, which means the old projectors will become worthless.  Not to mention the cost of a digital projector runs between $60,000 and $75,000.

“We could have switched to digital last year if we wanted to,” John Dretzel, 60, said.  “But we want to move on and retire.  We don’t want to sink that much money.  That’s our retirement money.”

The Dretzels have put their land and business on the market.  Their realtor has even found possible buyers, but none of them so far have been interested in keeping the drive-in open.

The Auburn Garrett Drive-In will also need to make the digital switch at some point.  “If you want to stay open you have to convert,” Bruce Babbitt, who operates the drive-in on State Road 8, said.  “It’s convert or die, and you might die trying.  I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but I’m planning on it because I know it have to if I want to stay open, but we don’t see a big upside to it.”

Both Dretzel and Babbitt thought each movie studio would go to digital only when studio executives thought the time was right.

“Paramount said last fall that Anchorman 2 was suppose to be their last 35 mm print,” Dretzel said.  “Now they’ve kind of backtracked on that.  No one really knows for sure.  I don’t think the studios even really know.”

With an aging generation of owners, Babbitt is in his late 50s, the hope is a younger generation will soon come in to save the industry’s future.

“I’ve said it for several years now, that drive-ins need younger owners,” Dretzel said.  “People who have ambition and energy.  We’ve done it for 12 years now and we want to retire.”

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