Digital video switch could mean closure of landmark Bristol drive-in

Nathan Baker • Aug 27, 2013 at 9:39 AM

BRISTOL — A 53-year-old Bristol entertainment landmark could go dark by year’s end if a credible buyer doesn’t pay for a major technological upgrade.

Danny Warden, owner of the Twin-City Drive-In Theatre on Volunteer Parkway, said Monday that he has no plans to make the switch to digital projection, a decision facing hundreds of drive-in owners nationwide as movie studios turn away from 35-mm film prints in favor of an all-digital distribution system.

“We’re going to show through this year, and unless something changes, that might be it,” Warden said Monday. “You never know, though, we’ve had a couple of people who say they might be interested in buying it. If someone buys it and switches to digital, then it will stay open.”

Warden, who with his wife Ellen has owned and operated the Twin-City since 1974, said it would cost at least $100,000 to purchase a new projector and then renovate the projection room to maintain the temperature and air-quality standards needed to protect the new equipment.

On top of that, a new projector needs regular maintenance and inspection from a qualified technician, further complicating the theater’s operation.

“The film projector I have right now I can maintain myself for nothing unless I have a major problem,” Warden said. “I don’t really want somebody else telling me how to run my business.”

Drive-in profit margins across the country are thin, but with a cheaper ticket price than most indoor venues and a recent resurgence of nostalgia, Warden said Twin-City had one of its best summers in terms of business last year.

A changeover to digital would mean an increase in ticket prices from $7 to $8 for adults and $4 for children instead of $2 – still lower than most indoor theaters – but Warden still prefers to either sell or close.

For race weekend, he put up a for sell notice on the theater’s marquee, hoping someone on the way to the Bristol Motor Speedway would stop and make an offer.

Without any solid prospects, it’s now back to business as usual, with the coming attractions back in place of the for sale sign.

“I still enjoy doing it,” Warden said. “I still love the theater business, and if they kept making film prints, we’d continue to show them. It’s a hobby for me, a passion.”

Danny and Ellen Warden purchased the theater in 1974 from his aunt and uncle. In 1949, Warden’s grandfather built the Twin-City and the first movie was played on the outdoor screen in 1950.

“You could say I’m kind of a third-generation owner,” he said. “I’m going to be sad to see it go, and so are a lot of our customers, but I’m just not sure we’re ready to make the change to digital.”

Citing a clearer picture and better sound, many of the major movie studios will offer only digital platforms in the coming years.

The digital videos arrive at theaters on a special hard drive and are downloaded to the new projectors.

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association estimates that between 50 and 60 outdoor theaters nationwide have made the switch, leaving approximately 300 more facing a tough fiscal decision.

The Stateline Drive-In in Elizabethton has entered a contest sponsored by Honda for a chance to win one of five digital projectors.

The Park Place Drive-In in Marion, Va., is holding a fundraising drive to try to pay for the new equipment and the needed renovations.

But Warden said he isn’t interested in launching similar efforts; it’s either close or sell for the Twin-City.

“We’re only going to sell if the right amount of money comes along,” he said. “If not, we’ll just leave everything in place, then I’ll be ready to go next year if they decide to keep film around.”

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