Historic drive-in goes digital

People of all ages are still drawn to the magic of movies under the night sky

People of all ages are still drawn to the magic of movies under the night sky

By Melissa Smith

Owner Lanita Price helps fill orders at the concession stand.

Owner Lanita Price helps fill orders at the concession stand.

A brindle Boxer named Lucy greets patrons as they drive up to the neon-lit stand to purchase tickets at the Henagar Drive-In. Cars, trucks and minivans then slowly make their way to find the prime viewing spots as children blow bubbles and play with glow sticks, waiting for the double-feature to begin.

Owner Lanita Price programs the movie to play before going down to the concession stand to help out as people begin to line up out the door and down the ramp.

Price built the Henagar Drive-In from the ground up in 1999. And, for the last five years, she has operated the theater with her daughter, Kayla Foote.

Even though it started sprinkling rain on this particular April Friday, moviegoers weren’t hindered by the elements. “We still roll in the rain,” Price says, laughing. That’s what they say when storms come in: The movies will keep playing as long as customers are comfortable staying. In fact, the only element the projector can’t shoot through is fog.

But while rain is no challenge for the outdoor movie show, time and technological changes within the industry have proven to be a different matter.

Tradition in transition

The Henagar Drive-In is beaming movies with an advanced digital projector that was purchased in 2014.

The Henagar Drive-In is beaming movies with an advanced digital projector that was purchased in 2014.

After 15 years of running a 35 mm projector, the drive-in faced a tough, and expensive, reality. Price decided it was time for an upgrade, and last year she purchased a digital projector for the drive-in. Now, instead of the giant rolls of film, movies come in the form of hard drives. “We ingest it in the projector,” Price says. “It’s date-coded, so once it’s done, you can’t view it anymore.” The movies can even be set up on a timer, so they basically run themselves.

According to Price, there are 373 drive-ins left in the country, and many of them still run on 35 mm, unlike their indoor cinema competitors. By the end of 2015, drive-in theaters will have to make a choice: convert to digital or shut down. “They’re going to have to shut down because they are doing away with film,” Price says.

“This is my livelihood. It’s like my baby. We’ve been hit twice by tornados, and our regulars wanted us to build back,” Price says. “It was a choice of shutting down or taking a chance and keeping it going. It’s been a year since we’ve been digital.”

Moviegoers have remained true to the Henagar Drive-In, and Price says she doesn’t feel like the digital conversion necessarily brought in more business, but it certainly improves the quality of the movies.

Timeless Experience
The Henagar Drive-In is open year-round on weekends, but in the summer months, you can come enjoy a movie on Wednesday and Thursday as well.

Although business is steady throughout the year, in the colder months, there is a great opportunity for football fans who wish they could watch football on the big screen.

Last season, the drive-in showed the college football playoff and National Championship games on the big screen. “We had a good turnout,” Price says. “We opened the concession stand and charged $5 per car. It was a lot of fun.”

Well, sometimes wishes come true. And, it happens to be one of the biggest screens around. “Hopefully, by football season, we’ll be able to show more games,” Price says.

Regular shows will cost $5 per person. But if you have three or more people in a car, the cost is $15. Period. “We’ve had church vans come through, people crammed in the back of a truck, and they still just pay $15 for a double-feature,” Price says.

But, what’s the most unique form of transportation? “We’ve had a man come in on a horse,” Price says.
Moviegoers have certainly developed some creative — and comfortable — ways to enjoy the shows. During peak season, many people get out of their vehicles and sit in camping chairs, while others blow up air mattresses or lay in the beds of their trucks. “One time, we had a little boy who wanted to set up his tent. It wasn’t a really busy night, so we let him,” Price says.

Speaking of busy nights, the biggest movie crowd was the showing of the “Cars” movies. “We packed out three weekends in a row,” Price says. Following closely behind was attendance for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Twilight” series. The drive-in can accommodate 250 vehicles, but they have never closed the gate or turned people away.

A Rainsville family — Lasha, Jayla, Kelci and Jacoby Guthrie — sit in the truck bed while enjoying a movie at the Henagar Drive-In.

A Rainsville family — Lasha, Jayla, Kelci and Jacoby Guthrie — sit in the truck bed while enjoying a movie at the Henagar Drive-In.

Charlene Smothers has worked at the drive-in for four years. She lives in Henagar, not far from the drive-in. “I’m a substitute teacher, and this is my secondary job,” Smothers says. She is usually running the cash register at the concession stand and says the drive-in employees feel like her own family.

Here’s something else to know about the Henagar Drive-In: Don’t make dinner plans before going.
They have hamburgers, chicken fingers, nachos, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and fries. But, if you’re in the mood for just a snack, they’ve got hot, buttery popcorn, candy and even snow cones.

In fact, the food is so good, many people come through just to eat. But, be sure to get some caffeine because the movies sometimes end late. “I’ve had to wake people up before in their cars when it was time to go home,” Smothers says, laughing.