STANFORD -- It’s a warm August weekend and the cars have lined up like they do nearly every weekend at the Stanford Drive-In as people socialize, munch on some snacks and settle in for a double feature.
The sun has set, the crowd has gone mostly quiet and Bruce Willis is hard at work with John Malkovich, fighting off multiple assassination attempts in an action thriller, “Red 2.”
Inside a room few moviegoers ever see, Michael Carpenter is watching the movie in a more literal sense. He’s watching as miles of 35-millimeter film spin off a giant film reel as big as his torso and wind past a whirring projector that takes up as much space as another human — and is probably older than most of the people outside watching.
On nights when the movie is especially long, the film could stretch from the theater’s rural roadside back into town, past Buffalo Springs Cemetery, down Main Street and maybe even up U.S. 27 toward Lexington.
Two feet of film per second, 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, two hours in a movie — Carpenter smiles when he remembers the time he sat down to do that math.
“I’ll kind of miss the old way,” he says. “It takes all the nostalgia of operating old projectors when you just have a projector there and you stick a disc in or a satellite feed or whatever and you hit play and it just goes.”
Carpenter is referring to the coming digital switchover: a fuzzy but fast-approaching line in the sand when the major movie distribution studios no longer will offer new movies on 35-millimeter film.
For the last 61 years, Lincoln County residents have headed out to the Stanford Drive-In on the weekends, especially in May, June and July, when school is fading and football has yet to begin.
No one working at the theater now knows exactly how old the two ancient projectors that still show the movies today are, but they’ve probably been around for more than half the life of the theater.
Between them, the pair of behemoths manufactured by Optical Radiation Corp. have projected nearly 100,000 hours of movies onto the drive-in screen.
Moving away from the old, iconic 35-millimeter film reels is a major hurdle for the continued survival of the Stanford Drive-In, as well as other drive-ins, because a new digital projector for a drive-in-sized screen can run $75,000-$80,000, said Denise Pike, owner of the drive-in.
“It’s just not every day that a person can pull $75,000 out of their pocket,” Pike said.
Pike’s preferred solution to the projector problem is a unique one — winning a nationwide contest among drive-in theaters to claim one of five digital projectors being offered for free by Honda.
Honda says its Project Drive-In is an effort to preserve America’s drive-ins as the digital switchover threatens to take them out. Besides offering the five free projectors, Honda is collecting donations to fund more digital upgrades.
Pike learned about the competition through a booking agency. She applied to participate, and when the competition began in early August, she was one of 71 drive-ins competing.
The projectors are being awarded based on the number of votes each theater can amass from its fans. Every person can vote twice a day — once online and once via text message, Pike said.
Voting is being conducted through Sept. 9.
Twin Hills Drive-In Theatre in Harrodsburg also is asking people to vote for it. The drive-in said on its Facebook page there is a big possibility it may have to close next season if it does not obtain a digital projector.
Pike, who has owned the Stanford Drive-In for three seasons, said whether or not it comes back next year doesn’t hang entirely on winning the competition, but “everybody that thinks anything of this drive-in needs to be voting.”
The Stanford Drive-In doubles as a flea market during the day, giving it a financial advantage over other drive-ins that don’t have any other sources of revenue, Pike said.
“It (the digital upgrade) is going to force a lot of them to close. A lot of drive-ins will close,” she said. “If I only had movies, I doubt if I would even do it.”
Another factor in the digital switchover is a matter of timing: It depends on when the major movie studios ultimately decide to cut out 35-millimeter film reels forever.
At least one major movie studio — Fox Searchlight Pictures — has announced that after this summer movie season, it won’t produce any more movies on 35-millimeter.
Warner Bros. Pictures will at least be increasing how much it charges for 35-millimeter, Pike said. If even one more major studio scratches the old format for good, that could be the end, she said.
“We could live without one movie company for a season,” she said. “But when you start having three or four or maybe even two, you don’t want to do that because you’re really limiting the pictures you can show.”
Pike said if she doesn’t win a projector from Honda, she will have to weigh her options and figure out whether she can afford to pay for the upgrade over “many years.”
Going digital does come with some operating-cost savings, like lower movie-delivery costs, Pike said.
“But it’s going to take a long time to pay for that new digital projector,” she said. “When you look at your savings per season, it’s still going to be a long-term investment. … If I don’t win one, I’m still going to look at doing it, but I have to look at how profitable it is going to be for me, too.”
Pike said she thinks if the drive-in did go out of business that “a lot of people are going to be very disappointed.”
“I think it’s a part of our community now. It’s been here for so many years and it’s a part of our little area, our town,” she said, before getting in one last request for votes. “If Stanford wins one, it’s going to be a big deal. The only way we’re going to make that big deal happen is if everybody joins in and starts voting.”
SO YOU KNOW
- To vote online for Stanford Drive-In in Honda’s Project Drive-In competition, visit www.stanforddrivein.com or www.projectdrivein.com/vote_74. To vote by text message, text “vote74” to 444-999.
- To vote for Twin Hills Drive-In, go to www.projectdrivein.com/vote_89 and search for Twin Hills and click "save this drive-in." You can also vote by texting “Vote89” to 444-999.