Midway Twin Drive-in makes costly transition to digital format

By Jeremy Nobile | Staff Writer Published:

At Ravenna Township's Midway Twin Drive-in Theater, large, antiquated Simplex 35mm movie projectors have gone the way of the VHS tape.

The theater, operated by Funflicks Inc., which also runs the Mayfield Road Drive-in Theater in Chardon, is among a core of America's drive-ins that have made a jump into the 21st century and replaced traditional film projectors with new all-digital models.

At roughly $100,000 a piece for each of the three new projectors -- two at the Ravenna theater, which can fit about 600 vehicles, and one in Chardon, which is about half that size -- Funflicks Inc. General Manager Mike Marxen said it's the single biggest change the Midway Drive- in on S. R. 59 has experienced since it opened in 1949.

Besides the vintage cars drive-ins used to draw, the digital movement itself is likely the biggest overall change the all-American institution has witnessed since drive-ins first appeared 80 years ago in New Jersey.

"Things are bound to change," Marxen said, "and you simply have to come up to speed with what the current trend is."

Film once contained in large metal cans is being replaced with computer-based drives that can be easily swapped in and out of modern digital projectors as studios abandon the antiquated film format this year.

Studios will save about a billion dollars per year by no longer putting movies both on film and digital hard drives, said Pat Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

It's unclear how many of America's drive-ins will either adapt or fade out of sight like a movie's ending credits, but the Midway and Mayfield locations have elected to take the expensive leap.

Marxen, who began working at the Midway theater in 1984 fresh out of high school, said he's happy to help maintain the theater's legacy.

While the theater has become an icon in the Kent/Ravenna area, drive-ins themselves are quite special in Ohio -- the state is tied for second with New York for having the most drive-ins in America with 29, being bested only by Pennsylvania's 30.

There are only 357 drive-ins left across the country, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. Comparatively, that number is down from the 447 that were open in 1999.

"It's good to keep something like this going because with less than 400 nationwide, it's kind of an elite status to be involved in something like this," Marxen said.

Careful management, specials and concession sales are what keep a drive-in viable, Marxen said, noting the Midway theater is offering new items like hand-dipped ice cream, s'mores and milkshakes for the first time this year.

Most indoor theaters made the transition years ago, but costs have led to obvious delays.

Owners of two theaters in Mansfield in northern Ohio already have decided not to make the switch, but the Aut-O-Rama Drive-In in North Ridgeville near Cleveland installed a digital system for its two screens in April. Co-owner Deb Sherman said they had to take out a loan, but that it was "something we had to do."

The Midway Drive-in boasts plenty of connections to the past despite the modernization. A display case in the concessions area has tools of the projectionist trade that have been affectionately exiled as new equipment takes over, while classic arcade machines line the walls.

Splicers once used to join together film reels can be found in the case next to the vintage radios that used to adorn drive-in posts.

At new digitally outfitted theaters like the ones in Ravenna and Chardon, movies are displayed in resolutions greater than high-definition television. And the audio is equally improved.

Despite a segue from traditional equipment, Marxen said the change is positive.

"I think its good because we're providing a better presentation overall in both picture and sound," he said. "But with anything that's tech based, you're always behind the 8-ball on it. It's always going to be improving and going, and wer'e going to be trying to catch up to the new standard."

Marxen said he's already anticipating how technology will change movies in the future because just like computers themselves, planned obsolescence is a standard feature.

"You've already got to start planning for then next upgrade," he said. "And when that comes, you'll have to be ready to make the change or get out of the business."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1126 or jnobile@recordpub.com

Facebook: Jeremy Nobile, Record-Courier

Twitter: @jnobile_RPC

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  • A wonderful move that shows faith and commitment to our community. Summer movie-goers should reciprocate by seeing a flick at Midway when they can. If you want to enjoy the complete retro drive-in experience you should buy refreshments there, too, rather than sneaking in popcorn made at home. Go for the whole package. Remember that the film studios and distributors get the bulk of the admission fee for the first-run movies that the Midway is showing now. I miss the pre-show playgrounds and speakers on poles, but you can still grab the rest of the experience while you can.

  • Two thumbs up for keeping the tradition alive. Saw my first movie there in 1955, I was 4 and the movie was The Lady And The Tramp. Nice to know my grandchildren can experience the drive-in also.