Voting is now open for "Project Drive-In," a campaign by Honda Motor Co. to save America's drive-in movie theaters and provide five theaters nationwide with a digital movie projector.
For one local theater, their fate hinges on this vote. The Mahoning Drive-In theater will likely close at the end of this year if they do not win a digital projector.
Digital projectors, which can cost more than $75,000 for large drive-in theater screens, will be required starting next year to display movies. Many drive-in theaters continue to display movies using a 35 mm projector. Film movies run on 35 mm projectors will no longer be available in 2014.
"We had heard about the need to switch from 35 mm projectors to digital," said Jessica Fini, assistant manager with Honda Public Relations. "We felt that there was a natural connection between cars and drive-ins, and thought we could use it as a platform to raise awareness of the issues."
Honda is asking people throughout the country to vote for the five drive-ins that will receive a free projector. They can also make a donation to support drive-ins, and pledge to visit a theater this summer.
"If the drive-in is in your community and you want it to be around after next year, getting online and voting is a big step to keeping them around in the community," said Fini.
"These theaters are run by families," she added. "They've been part of the communities for years. If keeping these types of institutes in your community is important to you, then definitely go online and vote at projectdrivein.com."
Kurt Fisher, the technical director at the Mahoning Drive-In, noted that Project Drive-In is likely the local theater's last chance to remain open. This is a problem facing dozens of drive-ins throughout the country.
Theaters with smaller screens have been able to convert to digital projectors relatively affordably. But to outfit a screen the size of Mahoning's the second-largest in the country at 105 feet wide, and built by Bethlehem Steel in 1947 would likely cost more than $80,000. It's an unsurmountable hurdle for a business that makes just a few thousand dollars in profit each year.
"The money is just not there, and banks balk at loaning this kind of money to businesses without major collateral," he said. "We do make a small profit, but it's not a huge moneymaker. Just about every theater owner in the country has a second job."
A map on the Project Drive-In website displays pins for each of the drive-ins vying to win a projector. Of the 60 businesses throughout the country, 12 are located in Pennsylvania a clear sign that drive-ins remain a popular destination for Pennsylvania residents and visitors.
"The drive-in is a Lehighton tradition," said Fisher. "This is where we kissed our first dates, where a lot of people used to go when they were kids. It would be a shame if it went away, and it definitely will if a projector does not come our way."
He also fears that the relative popularity of drive-ins in Pennsylvania will hurt Mahoning's chances in the competition. Some states, including California and Oregan, have just one drive-in in the competition.
Each drive-in in the competition was given a chance to share a one-minute film asking viewers to vote for them. Mahoning's film, called "Save the Mahoning Drive-In," ends with this plea:
"Please help us save our drive-in theater for our friends and their families. We MUST go digital or go dark for the first time in 65 years ... and forever silent."
Voters can go to www.projectdrivein.com/vote_21  to cast their vote for the Mahoning Drive-In once each day. Votes can also be cast by texting vote21 to 444999.
Voting will end Sept. 9. Digital projection winners will be announced the week of Sept. 23.