WINCHESTER, N.H. -- Even pieces of local history have to adapt to the times.
Open since 1948, the Northfield Drive-In must soon combine its old-school look and feel with contemporary technology if it's going to survive. As most movie companies are switching from film to digital media, equipment once standard in the industry is quickly becoming extinct.
And if owner Mitchell Shakour wants to keep the theater functioning, the business will need an upgrade. It's been in his family since 1968 and running the place is all he knows his summer weekends to be.
But, there's just one problem: money.
"Just to give you an idea, it cost $32,000 to buy the drive-in. Now we have to spend three times that ... to go digital," he said at the theater's entrance last Friday, the 64th anniversary of its opening in 1948. "That would be the cost at least -- probably more because we have to retrofit everything and got to heat it, got to bring DSL into the booth.
"It's hard right now to get film. Three or four years ago, when the last Batman movie came out, they made 10,000 prints in North America. This time around, they made 1,000 or less," he added. "They used to have five or six places in this country then now, no one is this country makes film anymore. There's one in Canada."
Shakour and his family won't have to make the final decision for a little while longer. They hope to open with film next season. This season is scheduled
He orders his film through what is called a booker, who books for the majority of the roughly 20 drive-ins still in New England.
Shakour, who took the reins in 1978, likes to personally answer the business' phone and greet customers driving in. Last week, he told each one he would raffle off three different Batman posters to celebrate the 64th anniversary. Cars, trucks and vans poured in from surrounding states -- and one couple even made it a point to stop by while on their vacation from Texas -- to check out the double feature of "Brave" and "Dark Knight Rises."
He said customer loyalty is extremely necessary if the upgrade to digital media will ever be made.
"I don't agree with the begging approach of, ‘You're going to lose your drive-in!' and starting a fundraiser. Nonprofits do that -- we're not a nonprofit. What we're trying to do is just make people aware of what the drive-in is about," he said in between leaning into the passenger side of vehicles to greet the guests and accept their money. "The majority of the profits at a drive-in theater are in snack bar. Every dollar you see me take in, 60, 70, 80 cents of that dollar goes to the film companies, depending on the week. You may gross more here (at the front gate) but there you get to keep more."
Justin Smith and his wife, Kathy, of Brattleboro, said they go to the drive-in four or five times every summer. Both said they've been regulars for decades and would be devastated if the establishment closed down.
"Even if you come here just once a summer, you've got to come," Kathy said. "We come rain or shine."
Teresa Young of Holyoke, Mass., first saw a movie in Northfield about 45 years ago when she was growing up in Gill, Mass. After finding out which movies were playing on Friday, she decided to take her daughter, Brianna, 8, her son, William, 7, and their friend, Sasha, 7.
"I try to get to the drive-in at least once a year," she said, holding her black Chihuahua, Cole, outside her car. "I love to support local businesses. I see this country kind of spiraling and a lot of the reason for that is things are going overseas and nobody is supporting local businesses."
William said he'd be sad if the drive-in, whose screen is split by the state line, went away.
"I like seeing the big screen," he said.
But Mitchell's wife, Carla Folkert, runs the snack bar and said the business just doesn't have the finances to upgrade.
"No way. We can't afford it right now," she said in the projection room, which is connected to the snack bar and filled with the aroma of cinematic history. She said the two old carbon arc projectors in the room were taken out of an old theater and once showed "Gone with the Wind," which was released in 1939. She hopes the theater will still open for next season.
Folkert said the projection room will have to become dust free and climate-controlled in order to switch to digital.
Paul Bader has been running these projects for the past 19 years, but don't ask him which movie has been his favorite.
"To be honest, I don't watch half of them, or three-quarters of them. I sit right here and watch my machines," he said from his chair. "These old machines need to be tended to."
He said theaters don't have a choice but to go digital sooner or later. But he said customers won't care one way or the other.
"People are going to go to the movies no matter what kind of machine is running," he said.
Shakour said drive-in theaters, one of the last remaining pure aspects of Americana, are actually making a comeback. However, adjusting to the digital age is vital in order to become a part of the resurgence.
The Northfield Drive-In covers 14 acres (12 in New Hampshire and two in Northfield, Mass.) and boasts 400 car spots. But Shakour said they haven't sold out in four years.
The theater is showing "The Campaign" and "Magic Mike" today and Sunday. The first movie is scheduled to start at 8:20 p.m. and the gates and snack bar open at 6:30.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.