Highway 21 Drive-In grapples with high cost of digital conversion

emoody@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 16, 2012 

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Joe Barth, owner of the Highway 21 Drive-in in Beaufort, stands next to his Strong Super Lume-X movie projector Thursday afternoon. Barth will hold a fundraiser at the end of the month to help pay for an upgrade to digital projectors.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver/Staff photo

  • Highway 21 Drive-In is trying to offset costs of the transition from film to digital through a Hooligan Hoedown on Sept. 29. The evening will include a sock hop, pinup contest, car show, live band and movies. The drive-in's owners, Joe and Bonnie Barth, hope to raise $20,000 to $30,000.

    The fundraiser starts at 3 p.m. and goes until the movies end. Admission is $5 a person. Car and motorcycle registration is $20, and swap meet and vendor spots are available for $120.

A trip to Highway 21 Drive-In movie theater in Beaufort takes Sandi Aggers, 66, of Charleston back more than 40 years when she goes on date night with her husband, Joey.

"It may be because I'm old," she said with a laugh, "but it makes me feel like I did when I was 21 or 22."

The couple rediscovered the fun of the drive-in experience a few years ago and regularly make the drive down to Beaufort to catch a movie.

But an impending "do or die" conversion to digital movies instead of film has Highway 21 owners Joe and Bonnie Barth raiding her retirement fund and scrambling for money to keep the theater running.

Closing isn't an option.

"Come hell or high water, we're staying," Joe Barth said.

The couple bought the theater in 2003 with the intention of running it for a few years and selling the land if the business did not do well.

"Don't most men go through a mid-life crisis and build a man cave with a big-screen TV?" Bonnie Barth said. "Mine has to buy 10 acres with an 80-foot screen."

The theater did not provide financial security -- both still work day jobs -- but it brings in enough to cover bills, pay wages for about 10 employees who either are or are like family to the Barths, they say. The little that's left is put aside for improvements.

The expected $140,000 price tag to convert the two screens to digital, however, made them pause. Most drive-ins, like Highway 21, are not eligible for the Virtual Printing Fees many traditional theaters can receive to offset the cost of the conversion, Bonnie Barth said. Theaters have to meet certain light and sound criteria to receive the money, which is difficult for drive-ins, she said. The couple is waiting on news of additional options for drive-ins like theirs.

Production studios already are moving away from producing movies on film, Joe Barth said. It is much less expensive to ship a movie on a flash drive than it is to send the movie in a large box of film, he said, and the theater will not be able to show certain movies in the future if it does not convert.

To save money for the conversion, the Barths will not have military appreciation nights during the fall season. Although military members do not have to pay for the shows, the Barths have to send studios a certain amount of money for each moviegoer. That money had been coming out of theater profits, so they are now seeking community sponsors to keep the tradition going.

Related content:

Projectionist pursues his love of film from inside the booth, Dec. 6, 2010

Quintessentially Lowcountry: Beaufort retains a piece of history with drive-in, Oct. 2, 2009

The 1930s American tradition of drive-in theaters is revitalized, Sept. 2, 2007

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