- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

MITCHELL, S.D. (AP) - In a cramped, dimly lit room, a film projector came to life, it’s light cutting into the night air and illuminating a giant screen a few hundred feet away.

It was April 9, 1976, and rows of cars filled Mitchell’s Starlite Drive-in for a double feature - “Walking Tall Part 2” and “Macon County Line” - on the first night of movies after Jeff Logan bought the drive-in.

“It was busy,” Logan said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic. “It was a kick.”

Now, the Starlite’s projection room sits quiet.

The Starlite closed after a final show - “Despicable Me 2” - on Sept. 21. Logan was the third owner of the drive-in, which was first built in 1949 as Lake Vue Drive-in.

As the typical drive-in season approaches this year, Logan said it feels odd not to be making the normal preparations - a lot of cleaning, a lot of painting - to make way for movie-goers.

“You miss it,” he said. “You just feel like you should be out at the drive-in.”

The Starlite closed, Logan said, because of a sweeping change in the film industry from 35 mm film to a new, digital format. With the switch, the Starlite, along with many other small indoor theaters and drive-ins, was faced with being forced to buy costly new digital projection equipment or take the risk of trying to get increasingly rare film prints of new movies.

“We enjoyed it and loved running it,” Logan said. “The problem was, financially, it was just getting more difficult.”

The number of drive-in theaters in the U.S. peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but declined in the decades that followed. There were 2,084 drive-in screens in the country in 1987, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. That number was more than halved to 1,014 by 1989. After more declines in the 1990s, there were just 606 drive-in screens at 366 drive-ins in the country in 2012. And with the Starlite’s gates seemingly closed for the last time, there are now only six drive-ins left in all of South Dakota.

As film continues to be phased out, drive-ins in Redfield and Winner are making the switch to digital this year, joining drive-ins already using digital projectors in Miller and Hermosa. In Gregory and Mobridge, drive-in owners are sticking with film this year, but both are faced with difficult decisions about the future of their businesses.

For many drive-in owners, Logan said, the decision to go digital isn’t always made strictly from a business perspective.

“I think some of them that are doing it are making the decision out of love,” he said.

More and more often, no film prints are being made of new movies at all, leaving small theaters and drive-ins with only film projectors in difficult positions. This summer, Logan estimated only about half of the movies released will be available on film.

“With such a limited number, even if it’s available, you’re going to be waiting a long time,” he said.

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