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Bethel Drive-in Goes Online for Help

The Randall Drive-In Theatre in Bethel launched a Kickstarter last week seeking to raise $45,000 to put toward the purchase of a digital projector. (Valley News - Maggie Cassidy)

The Randall Drive-In Theatre in Bethel launched a Kickstarter last week seeking to raise $45,000 to put toward the purchase of a digital projector. (Valley News - Maggie Cassidy) Purchase photo reprints »

Bethel — The operators of the Randall Drive-in Theatre say that if they cannot raise the funds toward the purchase of a digital movie projector, the seasonal cinema might not be able to return for another engagement.

With that in mind, the drive-in has launched an online fundraising campaign that launched Friday and continues until Dec. 13, the maximum fundraising window allowed on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.

“For the moment, from what our research has shown, if this doesn’t work, that’s it,” said Adam Gerhard, who began leasing the 60-year-old theater with partner Regina Franz earlier this year. “We’ve looked at other options ... I’m hoping we’ll find them if we need them, but right now, I don’t see them.”

Under Kickstarter’s rules, the drive-in only receives pledges if the campaign reaches its $45,000 goal by the deadline. As of Tuesday afternoon, about $1,850 had been pledged.

Gerhard said he’s hoping the campaign might resonate with Kickstarter’s worldwide audience. The drive-in recently lost out on a campaign in which Honda donated nine digital projectors to drive-ins across the country based on online and text voting. Gerhard said it was tough to go up against larger drive-ins with bigger audiences, but Kickstarter might be a better fit.

“It’s pretty much the most popular crowd-funding source online, and whereas we’re in such a small market, it was the best way to sort of broaden our market,” he said. “They have a lot of people who go on the Kickstarter website to just look for projects to donate money to who wouldn’t necessarily go to the drive-in or come to Vermont.”

Bordering the White River, the Randall drive-in has the smallest car capacity in the country at 150 maximum, Gerhard said. It’s bounced back from damage by several strong storms over the years, including Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

A digital projector has become a necessity for theaters as Hollywood studios convert from 35mm film to digital distribution. Raising the money to buy a digital projector is particularly difficult for drive-ins, which have shorter seasons and limited financing abilities.

The other Upper Valley drive-in, the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater, launched a fundraising campaign to buy a digital projector last year and has raised more than $18,000 in private donations so far.

For Gerhard and Franz, business has been good since they started leasing the drive-in from owner Scott Corse in April. Lowering ticket prices to $6 for adults and $3 for children helped them sell 7,000 tickets this past season — twice as many as the theater’s previous record. They also showed triple features.

Still, Gerhard said he and Franz had hoped to have a few more seasons to raise the money for the digital projector. The movie industry hasn’t set a deadline for when it would discontinue distributing movies on film reels, but it seems many studios are holding fast to a target date of January. Some of this fall’s titles have already been released as digital-only.

A digital projector typically costs upward of $70,000, according to Gerhard. The Randall drive-in operators are seeking just $45,000, he said, because it seemed like a realistic goal. The difference would be made up from other fundraising efforts, such as 50/50 raffles, and the drive-in is seeking corporate sponsorships.

If the online campaign is successful, donors would be eligible to receive rewards ranging from popcorn, Frisbees and glow bracelets for smaller donations to a private “corporate party” at the drive-in for a $4,000 donation.

In Bethel on Tuesday, other business owners said they hoped that the drive-in’s Kickstarter campaign is successful — even if they had never actually been to the theater.

Guy Flatley, who lives in Chelsea and has operated Flats Tattooing of Vermont on North Main Street for three years, said he’s always wanted to go to the drive-in but just hasn’t gotten around to it. Now he’s hoping he still has the chance.

“I think it’s good that they still have (drive-ins),” he said. “It’s like one of the last dying pieces of American pie.”

A few doors down at Cockadoodle Pizza Cafe, owners Jim and Nell Fisher said they’re planning to support the drive-in’s campaign on their business’s Facebook page. During the summer, drive-in patrons stop to pick up a pizza on the way to see a movie, they said.

“We definitely want to see it stay open,” said Jim Fisher, who called the drive-in a “landmark” and part of a “dying breed” of entertainment. “It’s just a cool thing to have in your town, and you want to keep it there.”

Nell Fisher pointed to the nearby Playhouse movie theater in Randolph, which used a Kickstarter campaign to successfully raise more than $100,000 for a new digital projector and sound system last winter.

“If Randolph can save their theater,” she said, “we can save our drive-in.”

Interested donors can make a contribution at www.randalldrivein.com/digital.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com.