Laser Projectors Go to the Drive-In

The International Cinema Technology Association (ICTA), in conjunction Box Office Pro magazine, presented a webinar entitled “Back to the Future – How Drive-Ins and Pop-Up Cinema Complements the Movie Going Experience in the Covid-19 Aftermath.”  Moderated by Frank Tees, VP of ICTA, the group presented five “interviews” describing innovative approaches to exhibiting movies…outdoors.  Yes, ‘Back to the Future’ is right.

I logged in for two reasons:  first, I wanted to see how the exhibition business is finding new (or dare I say “re-imagined”) ways to get movies on the screen for its patrons in the “time of Covid” lockdowns – and second, to see if high brightness Laser Illuminated Projectors (LIPs) are playing an enabling role.  I was not disappointed in either case.

Some background for the youngsters in the audience:  Drive-in Theaters were all the rage in the 50s, peaking at 4,063 outdoor screens in 1958.  Yes, with film projectors and those tinny speakers you hung on your partly rolled down window.  Due to factors both cultural, competing entertainment options and economic, increased real estate values for alternative land uses, screen counts declined continuously from the peak leaving only 549 screens at 305 locations last year. 

But then along came Covid and the lockdowns.  Exhibitors went from a record-breaking start in the first two months of 2020 to dead stop by the end of March.  But then some enterprising exhibitors looked back and decided they could update 50s Drive-ins, build new Pop-Ups or hang “parking lot screens” on the sides of their now-closed multiplexes, keeping their brands alive and patrons happy.

The 5 presenters ranged from seasoned Drive-in owners to “indoor theater” managers desperate to stay connected to their loyal local and summer tourist patrons to a creative neophyte who had never himself been to a Drive-In as a kid.  Lots of cleverness and “learn as you go” – but all animated by the love of Cinema and the spirit of “can do”.  Even new, “inflatable screens” (Yes, big ones! Even two-sided ones) have been deployed to bring outdoor Cinema to some unlikely places – like this one in Venice for the VFF. Not your backyard cinema!

Photo courtesy of AirScreen

But what about Lasers at the Drive In?  Joe De Meo of Cinionic interviewed Rick Cohen, CEO of Transit Drive-In Theatre in Lockport, NY, near Buffalo, a five screen multiplex run by his family for 3 generations since they acquired it in 1957.  No amateurs here!  All the time I spent pushing laser cinema (since 2003), I always thought that Drive-Ins could profit from the benefits of Laser Projection:  Double the brightness of the best Xenon PJ; better color and contrast, power savings – the best for the biggest big screen. But it took a while.

Rick described how they “saw the demo in Rochester ten years ago and wanted laser”.  They held out until 2012, hoping they could go digital and laser at once, but they ultimately decided to convert to digital and wait a bit longer to go Laser.  They “pulled the trigger on Laser this year and installed a 60L in May”, just in time for the lockdown. 

The results?  “Phenomenal.  Unimaginable brightness – on a 100’x41’ screen”.  So, his first laser screen, the biggest of the 5, went from being the dimmest to being the brightest.  Patrons that used to compare pictures for years – the biggest Xenon screen had the dimmest picture.  Laser has flipped this and now the expectation is set.  Transit will soon be the first “All Laser, Drive-In Multiplex” – bringing the benefits of Laser Illuminated Projectors to all 5 screens.  Back to the Future, indeed.

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