November 26, 2014

Elyria
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North Ridgeville drive-in theater owners invest in new technology

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — The reviews are in, and it’s a hit.

Judging from initial reaction to an opening weekend offering brand-new digital projection of movies, the Aut-O-Rama Twin Drive-In’s 49th season is getting off to a good start.

“The weather sure didn’t help us any, but people came up and said they really liked it,” owner Deb Sherman said as she talked about the business and its biggest innovation in years.

Sherman, who runs the drive-in with family members led by her son, Tim, endured some anxious moments wondering if they’d made the right move by investing an estimated $150,000 in the equipment and needed projection booth upgrades including a new ceiling and heating and air conditioning equipment.

“The Guinness Book of Records has declared this is the brightest projection equipment in the world,” according to Tim Sherman.

Using a 6,500-watt bulb to illuminate more vivid movie images made possible by digital projection, the new equipment sits beside one original film projector dating to the drive-in’s opening in 1965 and another purchased in 1972.

The drive-in’s normal opening on the first weekend of April was pushed back two weeks to enable the digital projection equipment to be installed.

One big plus of digital projection is that it can be operated from a laptop or smartphone.

“Once we get the movie started, we can leave the projection booth and don’t have to worry about things,” Tim Sherman said.

Security measures are much more heightened in the digital era, he said, with each film having its own security code or key, which permits a movie to be shown for a specific period of time.

If a particular film is a big hit, a new electronic security key must be obtained to show the film once the original key or code expires, Sherman said.

The new digital projection has the Shermans toying with ideas for a possible weekly “retro” night for screening vintage movies, and a Halloween season horror fest of older movies, all of which could be screened in Blu-ray.

On another front, the drive-in has decided to institute a new policy this year that bans anyone from bringing in food or drinks not purchased from the concession stand.

The move was made as a way of trying to keep the business viable.

“Our regulars understand where we’re coming from and are willing to cooperate with us,” Deb Sherman said. “It’s the people who may only come out a few times during the season who may be upset.”

In previous seasons, the Aut-O-Rama sold food permits that allowed customers to bring food into the drive-in.

“Our sales have gone up, but we had to maximize our ability to generate income,” Sherman said.

Fewer than 360 drive-ins operate in the U.S. today, down from the 4,000-plus that once dotted the country. Many drive-ins are expected to fold in the next few years because they can’t afford the film-to-digital conversion, according to the Aut-O-Rama website.

Popcorn, candy, hot dogs, pizza and ice cream remain mainstays of most patrons, but the drive-in has responded to requests for healthier options by adding vegan and gluten-free items, Sherman said.

Admission prices remain $9 for those 12 and older, and $3 for children ages 4 to 11.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.