DIXON – In the 1950s and ’60s, more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters were in business across America. Visiting one was a favorite pastime for families who wanted to spend some quality time together, and a rite of passage for teenagers.
Then came cable television, DVDs and Netflix. If those challenges to drive-ins weren't enough, add the transition to digital movies. Studios have stopped distributing movies on 35mm film for the improved picture quality and to cut production and shipping costs.
Making that transition to state-of-the-art technology doesn't come cheap for the 380 or so drive-in theaters remaining throughout the country. Just ask Mike and Mia Kerz.
The Kerzes, of Niles, are owners of Midway Drive-In and Diner, between Sterling and Dixon. The Midway is one of only 13 drive-in theaters left in Illinois. The owners are resurrecting a fundraising campaign to help pay for the digital projector and other updates that must be made to accommodate the use of the new equipment.
"The projector is about $70,000 to $80,000," Mia said. "It's actually more of a computer than a projector, but then to accommodate it, structural upgrades must be made."
That makes the cost about $125,000. Because drive-ins are a seasonal business in northern states, that cost became prohibitive for many drive-ins, and many more have closed since the film industry started phasing out the 35mm movies.
The Kerzes say they have put more than $100,000 into the Midway. Film studios get much of the ticket revenue, while the drive-ins must rely on concessions to survive. The drive-ins pay twice, because they usually show double features. But for the Kerzes, drive-in theaters aren't as much a business as they are a passion.
"This really is a labor of love," Mia said. "We have other jobs to help keep this afloat."
Like their campaign in 2012, the fundraising is being done in phases. They hope to hit a $40,000 target by Feb. 28. They will continue to raise money after that deadline, but falling short of the first-phase target would make it difficult to get the equipment in before this season's opening. Weather plays a role in when that will be, but it is usually in April.
"This deadline is a place for us to stop and gauge the situation," Mia said. "We'd find a way to open, but in order to show first-run films, we have to get digital."
"If we get the initial $40,000, we can finance the rest," Mike said.
The Midway will keep its 35mm projector to show classic horror films and an occasional digitally restored horror classic at its Dusk to Dawn horror fests, Mia said.
The 2012 campaign used the fundraising website Kickstarter. It fell well short of the target, and the couple were required to return the $7,000 in donations, so the owners decided to just run this campaign on their own.
The Midway has been open since it was built in 1950. The Kerzes bought the business in 2007, after spotting it through their association with a drive-in theater organization.
"We did some research, and we knew Dixon right away from its ties to [Ronald] Reagan," Mike said. "We visited and loved Dixon. We learned that the Midway was a vital part of the community."
The couple had tried twice previously to buy closed drive-ins – the Sunset in Rockford, and another in western Winnebago County. Both efforts were unsuccessful because of zoning issues with the county board.
As challenging as the drive-in has been, the Kerzes say they haven't seriously considered closing their only theater.
"This is a landmark that should be preserved," Mike said. "There are too many things that make America special going away."
The drive-in theaters that make the change to digital might have a unique marketing opportunity, Mike says.
"This will ultimately be a good thing," he said. "It will allow us to rebrand ourselves as a mix of great tradition with the newest, best modern movie experience."