The same flashing lights on the arrow sign of Santa Fe Drive have directed drivers into the Mesa Drive-In for decades. Moviegoers drawn to the lights like moths because they say it’s a movie experience unlike any other.
“It’s the open air, you can sit in your own car if you want, you don’t have to deal with other people,” RJ Scott said.
For years, every season on most weekends you will find Scott parked front and center. A homemade car speaker box sits on the hood of his car so he and friends can sit out under the stars to watch the latest blockbuster.
“I absolutely love this place,” Scott said.
Many, like Scott, show up hours before dusk as children run around, teens toss a football and dates file into the snack shack for popcorn and an ice cream cone.
Just like popcorn seems to be a perfect pairing with the movies, so has 35-millimeter film. The crackle, rattle and popping of the film projector is here today…but will be gone next season.
“This is the last year they’re making film, so it’s a must for us to go digital,” said Eric Ebrecht who works at the Mesa.
The first drive-in theater just celebrated its 80th birthday last month. But by next summer the conversion to digital projection will happen as owners are being forced to fork over tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars just to keep the gates open.
“It’s either close down or go digital. We’re about to go digital,” Ebrecht said.
Digital will bring a clearer picture, better sound and it’s much less expensive for a studio to produce a digital copy…over $2,000 cheaper.
“I think if it was up to us we’d probably want to keep film because it adds to the old school effect,” said projectionist Mike Valdez.
Maybe only the purists or the nostalgic will notice or care but drive-ins are racing to catch up with a movie industry more concerned with the bottom line than preserving the past.