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Fairlee Drive-In Needs Projector

This article was originally published in the July 6, 2012 edition of the "Valley News." Read an update published to the Upper Valley Dispatch blog on Aug. 21, 2013 at this link.

Fairlee — Madisyn Watson, 14, and her brother Henry, 12, sat in their family’s golden Jeep Grand Cherokee at Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater last night, waiting for the start of The Amazing Spiderman.

The Perkinsville family — including mom Lisa, dad John, and black Labrador Jack — were partaking in a cherished yearly ritual: Every summer during their weeklong stay on Lake Morey, they make a point to catch a flick at the drive-in.

But last night, the drive-in’s brochure greeted the Watsons with some disappointing news: One of the state’s last remaining drive-in theaters could be forced to close if its operators can’t raise $70,000 to purchase a digital projector before next summer.

The young Watsons weren’t so pleased.

“It would be like we didn’t have some place to do our annual thing,” Henry said.

“Our tradition would be over,” Madisyn added, frowning.

Peter Trapp, who owns the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater on Route 5, announced the news on the business’s website and Facebook Page late last week.

The drive-in needs the new projector, Trapp said, because digital film continues its nationwide overthrow of 35 mm rolls, and movie distributors plan to discontinue the old-school format.

Trapp’s goal is to get 7,000 people to donate $10 each, and to increase attendance at the theater’s nightly showings, which sometimes run into October.

“I think a lot of people are empathic with us,” Trapp said yesterday. “… We raised half a percent — $350 — in a week, which is nice, but we’re going to need raise a lot of money.”

When Trapp and his family took over the business in 2003, they spent $40,000 to buy a refurbished Simplex projection system, which Trapp estimates is about 20 years old and likely came from an old Army base. (The machine replaced the a 50-year-old carbon arc projector, which required the projectionist to play two reels of film, one after the other.)

With the spread of digital film spawned by the release of Avatar in 2009, the Simplex will one day become obsolete for use in showing new releases — and recently, Trapp’s been notified by several movie distributors that that day is coming sooner than later. Most of the movie houses he works with will stop offering 35 mm by the spring, or offer the format for a fee that Trapp can’t afford.

The Fairlee drive-in doesn’t qualify for film industry-sponsored financing to offset transition purchase costs, Trapp said, and since business has fallen off by half since the economy tanked in 2008, the enterprise doesn’t qualify for most traditional loans.

With a bushy white moustache and a green John Deer baseball cap atop his head, Trapp last night listed the thousands of dollars worth of improvement and repair projects — “deferred maintenance,” he calls it — the drive-in has undertaken since he bought it in ‘03. The projection room needed a new roof, for example, and after a cow was found asleep in the viewing area, he decided it was time to fix the fence.

As he loaded a 4-foot-wide roll of film onto the projector’s “platter,” stringing the celluloid through a serpentine series of bends and pullies, he said the new digital projector would be an extraordinary expense that most people don’t recognize: A lot of people think the drive-in uses a DVD player, he said.

Mark Wycstrom and Joanna Moshkovitz, on vacation in the Upper Valley from Massachusetts, said they try to go to the drive-in in Mendon, Mass., a few times each summer, and discovered the Fairlee drive-in during a trip last year.

As they waited for Spiderman to start from the comfort of their Toyota Corolla, they said they hope the Fairlee drive-in can find the funds to survive.

“There’s so few drive-ins now,” Wycstrom said. “It sucks that new technology is driving some of these drive-ins out.”

The Digital Takeover

Sydney Stowe, film manager of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College, said she’s had plenty of great movie-watching experiences at the Fairlee drive-in, most recently viewing The Avengers there earlier this year. She would be disappointed to see the venue shuttered, she said.

The challenge facing the drive-in is a familiar one for Stowe. The Hop’s operators are weighing when that theater, too, will be forced to invest in a digital projector.

“It’s one thing to stay just playing on 35 (mm film) if you’ve got good 35, but no one’s really sure the year that they’re going to stop 35,” she said. “We can play Spartacus all day long on 35, but … if there’s a Batman 2016, we’re going to need a (digital) projector.”

While the Hop will surely survive, the future is bleaker for smaller independent movie theaters like Fairlee’s drive-in. Articles and editorials lamenting the plight of 35 mm film — such as one published on independent film website Indiewire titled “We’re About to Lose 1,000 Small Theaters That Can’t Convert to Digital; Does it Matter?” — don’t brighten the outlook.

“It’s going to kill a lot of them,” Stow said of the digital transition.

Drive-ins are particularly vulnerable because they’re an already-dying breed: Statistics from the National Association of Theatre Owners and the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association show Vermont is home to only four of the country’s 366 drive-in sites, including one in Bethel. There were nearly 600 drive-in sites nationwide in 1995.

And according to the drive-in theater fan site at driveinmovie.com — whose banner advertisements include a Netflix promotion — more than 20 drive-ins populated the Green Mountain State during the craze’s peak 40 years ago.

What’s more is that the Fairlee drive-in was the first of only two “motel-theater” arrangements in the country, Trapp said. After the outdoor theater was constructed in 1950, the motel built in 1960 was positioned so guests could watch the movies from their rooms.

That’s why, he said, his quest is about more than funding a large purchase: It’s about saving a landmark and a piece of the community. About 10,000 people showed up last year, he said, but he’d like to get those numbers back up to pre-recession stats.

“If we could get more people to come, that would be a big thing. … We’d really love people to A, donate, but B, come. Just show up,” he said.

Trapp has already taken some steps to increase revenue; ticket prices will soon increase from $8 for adults and $5 for kids to $9 and $6, respectively, but a percentage of those extra dollars will go to movie houses and the state.

Even if he can’t purchase a digital projector by next year, Trapp said, he would continue the fundraising effort until he can reopen down the road.

Still, he said, it’s a sad story for the man who doesn’t consider him a movie buff, but simply fell in love with the theater he visited during summer camp trips as a kid. His wife, Erika, is head chef — menu offerings includes burgers made of beef raised on the Trapps’ Piermont farm — and his three sons ages 14-18 work the ticket booth, make pop-corn and help in the kitchen.

“There’s certainly nowhere else you can go to and just hang out for an evening,” he said.

But costs go up and revenues go down.

“And drive-ins close,” he said. “I think it’s pretty sad.

“It’s a tough thing because once they’re gone, they never come back.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at 603-727-3220 or mcassidy@vnews.com.

Related

Vote for the Bethel and Fairlee Drive-In Theaters to Win Digital Projectors

Monday, August 26, 2013

As the movie industry phases out film, the Upper Valley’s two drive-in theaters have a chance to win digital projectors — and you can help get them there by voting online or via text. The Randall Drive-In Theatre in Bethel and the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater are among roughly 75 drive-in theaters nationwide participating in Honda’s “Project Drive-In” campaign. …