MT. ZION, W.Va. — Movies won’t be shown this summer at one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in West Virginia, although its snack bar will be open.
Bonnie Sands, manager of the Mt. Zion Drive In, announced Friday the theater will not open for the 2015 season. Her family bought the theater in 1979 and it has been a Calhoun County landmark since 1952.
Once drive-in movie theaters were a common sight, but that is changing. According to Nerve.com, in 2014 there were less than 350 drive-in theaters operating in 47 states.
“We are going to step back a year, regroup and do our research, look at different avenues and see what will work and not work,” Sands said.
Sands said they have been attempting to raise $75,000 to install modern digital projection equipment to show new movies, but only made it to $2,300. Sands said money raised through a Facebook camapign will be returned.
“What we need is a pedestal, a server, projector, a high-end piece of equipment and then integrate with a converter to get the sound out through our system,” she said. “They also provide 24/7 suppport meaning they could help at any time, either by walking us through trying to fix it or take over remotely.”
Sands said the digital equipment has been around long enough for a used and refurbished equipment market to crop up, but it is still expensive.
“It is a bit worrisome to me some theaters have to upgrade but we will look at that avenue,” she said. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve learned they might not include everything. We will have to be careful.”
While the screen may be dark this summer, the snack bar will open, she said.
“The snack bar will be open for all of your favorite snacks, and we are planning to get an ice cream machine back. We may extend the snack bar times, to make it more of a restaurant,” she said in a post on Facebook.
Sands said the snack bar was as big an attraction as the theater, situated along West Virginia 16 near Grantsville .
“Some came just for food,” she said. “I crave it and others say they do as well,” Sands said. “Our pizza is homemade; we make our own crust.”
As long as they can get quality food and keep prices affordable, the snack bar will stay open.
“We are the only drive-in theater for miles. Shinnston is the closest indoor theater,” she said. “We were the drive-in for Calhoun, Gilmer, Ritchie and Wirt counties.”
Hollywood’s move to digital production has made it hard for drive-ins and small independent theaters to stay open, Sands said.
“We used to know a week, and sometimes a month, in advance what films we’d have; all was good,” she said. “Last year I didn’t know until Sunday or Monday and sometimes as late as Thursday.”
Last year the booking agency said it was a nightmare to get films. Sands said a movie like “Heaven is for Real” only had one print available for a six-state area and maybe 100 in the eastern part of the country. If a film was still bringing people in, the theater owners were reluctant to stop screenings, adding to the problems, she said.
In past years Mt. Zion could get a four-week-old movie in the top 10 for 35 to 45 percent of the gate.
“A brand new film could be as high as 50-60 percent of the gate,” Sands said. “Last year it was 35 percent of the gate for one eight to 12 weeks old; we were not getting first run; it was second or third run. It was a big fight.”
Sands said they have to pay $45 for the film to be shipped in and $45 to return.
If a film has been released on disc, the rent is a flat rate rather than a gate percentage. Sands said there have been suggestions they show older films, but that is even more expensive.
“They really have them in vaults and it is expensive to take them from the vault,” she said. “We’d have to pay a rental fee, a booking fee, insurance for it to be transported by a special courier and insurance for while it’s in our possession and then insure the return to the vault with a courier.”
Sands said it is clear that film is on its way out. With the advent of digital film making, Sands said, the old way of using actual film is now considered an art form.
“It takes more care and diligence,” she said. “Kodak made the film; it is in vaults and companies have laid claim to certain amounts of the film stocks.”
Many in the community are sad the Calhoun County drive-in won’t be showing movies this summer, she said.
“We have a lot of Facebook support,” she said. “We have people who want to help us raise funds.”
Sands said she has been in touch with the state film commission and the tourism office to see if they can offer any assistance; and she is looking at something that may generate grant money.
“Last fall I began the process to have the theater designated a historic landmark,” she said. “I’ll submit the paperwork and wait. That could put us in the running for some grants.”
There have been applications for other grants, but they have not heard anything or learned they were not selected?
“We joined the movement Drive In Rescue on Facebook and Save Drive Ins, but they are mostly awareness sites,” Sands said.