August 14, 2013
From Sidney to Strasburg, Ohio drive-in-theater owners are hoping to win a nationwide contest sponsored by Honda that would pay for digital-projection systems.
The initiative, which Honda calls “Project Drive-In,” lets the public vote online for five winners in a field of about 80.
“It’s kind of ironic that the Internet is helping the drive-ins stay alive,” said Rich Reding, the third-generation owner of the Lynn Auto Theatre located in Strasburg in northeastern Ohio. It’s the oldest in the state, open since 1937, and the second-oldest in the country.
Five theaters in Ohio are participating, most of them in rural areas. Many of the theaters in metropolitan areas, such as the South Drive-in on the South Side and Lancaster’s Skyview Drive-In, already have digital projectors.
Kathryn Rees, 79, co-owner of Sidney Auto Vue in the western Ohio city, says she would need $75,000 to make the digital upgrade, money she does not have.
“Drive-ins are not big money-making businesses,” she said.
The theaters need to switch to digital because movie companies are about to end the wide distribution of 35 mm film. News reports about the fallout of that decision — the potential demise of small-town drive-ins — got Honda’s attention.
“Everyone has this kind of positive nostalgia associated with drive-ins,” said Jessica Fini, a Honda spokeswoman.
Honda launched a website, www.projectdrivein.com, that will allow people to read about the issue and vote up to two times per day for a participating theater. The site is also taking donations to help theaters in addition to the five that win.
As of yesterday afternoon, more than 20,000 people had voted. Voting will continue until the end of the day on Sept. 9.
Ohio has 28 drive-in theaters. It is tied with New York for the second most of any state. Pennsylvania has the most, with 30, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, a trade group based in Florida.
The number of drive-ins continues to fall from a peak of more than 4,000 nationwide in the 1960s; the total is now less than 400, the association says.
Reding, 47, says his drive-in has been owned by his family since before he was born.
“When I was a teenager, I didn’t think I’d work here,” he said. But now, not only does he work there, he lives in a trailer on the property.
The theater staff is a collection of family and friends. Until last year, the ticket taker was Reding’s mother, who passed away this week after a long illness.
His theater has two screens, one of which has a digital projector. If he wins the Honda contest, he will use the proceeds to upgrade his second screen.
Regardless of which theaters are the ultimate winners, the campaign is probably already a success for Honda, said Christie Nordhielm, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
“It immediately calls out to two (demographics), baby boomers and hipsters,” she said.
She notes that drive-ins are a source of nostalgia for Americans, which makes for an interesting pairing with Honda, a company based in Japan.
While Honda’s headquarters is in Tokyo, it has a large manufacturing presence in this country, including 13,700 employees at plants in Ohio. Rees, from the Sidney drive-in, is hoping that the theater’s close proximity to Honda’s engine plant in Anna will help generate votes from the automaker’s employees who live in the area.
The campaign is being conducted through social media, which is much less expensive than broadcast or print advertising.
“We have to stop being surprised that social-media campaigns are effective,” Nordhielm said. “ The most-important resource isn’t the money you’re spending, it’s the nature of the idea.”