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10 Drive-Ins Ready for the Future

Drive-in movie theaters are often thought of as relics from times gone by. But while it's true that the real estate drive-ins occupy are often more valuable than the business, many theaters are hanging tough. The past decade has even seen some new theaters built.

Make no mistake, though. The industry, like many small businesses, faces challenges. The number of screens has declined from more than 4,000 in the 1960s to 366 today. Skyrocketing real-estate values tempted many owners to sell out to commercial developers.

And now, the 21st-century is providing drive-in theater owners with a new challenge: digital projection.

The United Drive-In Theater Owners Association expects that within the next two years, movie studios will stop distributing films domestically in 35mm celluloid prints, forcing theater owners everywhere—not just those running drive-ins—to convert to digital projectors or shut down. While digital delivery of a new release will cut down dramatically on studios’ printing and distribution costs, it will increase expenses for theater owners: They will have to pay between $60,000 to $85,000 to upgrade each screen.

The good news is that many are prepared to battle it out. “People who run drive-in theaters in the 21st century are never dull, and their stories are all unique,” said photographer Carl Weese, who has been documenting drive-ins for more than a decade.

What will it take for drive-ins to, as the joke goes, not have to sell out to Wal-Mart? Here are 10 theaters that are re-inventing themselves for the future.

By Regina Hing, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 4 June 2012

Photo by: CSA Plastock | CSA Images | Getty Images