SACO, Maine — For 74 summers, as the sun sets over Saco, a giant screen framed by tall pines flickers to life.
The year the Saco Drive-In opened, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” premiered.
This week, “The Smurfs 2” and “Planes” kept scores of families entertained under the stars. They spilled from cars, trucks and minivans onto a sprawling lawn to frolic before the double feature.
But this vintage slice of Americana may not reach its 75th anniversary.
This summer, the second oldest drive-in theater in the country, along with many more, is in danger of going dark at the end of the season.
As the film industry decrees the death of 35-millimeter film to make room for the digital age, independent theaters such as the Saco Drive-In are in a bind. In order to show new releases next season, Ry Russell and other drive-in owners have to shell out $75,000 for a digital projector or risk going out of business.
For the small, seasonal operators in Maine, that’s a hard bullet to bite. Besides Saco, there are drive-in theaters in Westbrook, Bridgton, Skowhegan and Madawaska. A majority of the owners are dealing with the issue in various ways and fighting to stay open. One could not be reached for comment.
“We tried to do fundraising at the start of the year, but it’s really hard to get people to donate money,” said Russell.
But don’t roll the credits just yet.
An unlikely partner, interested in reviving the golden age of the automobile, has stepped in to help.
Last week, Honda launched Project Drive-in in an effort to smooth the transition. Their “save the drive-in” online campaign is seeking to keep these iconic experiences alive for future generations.
“Drive-ins are part of car culture and we are using social media as a platform to elevate this issue that many small-business owners face,” said Honda spokesperson Jessica Fini.
Honda will donate digital projectors to the country’s top five drive-ins that garner the most votes on ProjectDriveIn.com.
As of Friday morning, 421,776 people had cast votes for 80 drive-ins, from Oregon to Maine, participating in the monthlong competition. In addition, $14,579 in donations had been made.
Though a Japanese company, Honda says it is rooted in America.
“We’ve been building cars here for 30 years,” said Fini.
Honda is providing drive-ins with sample tweets, Facebook posts and press releases to attract attention. They have created the Twitter hashtag #savethedrivein to rally support.
To proprietors such as Russell, who worried all year how he could afford a new projector, this is a Hail Mary pass.
“This project is the last hope to keep this going,” said Russell, who just breaks even every year but keeps going because “drive-ins are as American as baseball.”
But they are fading fast.
In 1958, there were 4,000 drive-ins in America. Now there are 355, according to Drive-Ins.com. In Maine, just five remain.
Though he has entered the Honda competition, Andrew Tevanian of Westbrook’s Prides Corner Drive-In will open next year if he wins or not.
“It’s not just a drive-in, but a way of life,” said Tevanian, whose father bought land and cleared forest to erect a silver screen on Route 302 in 1953. In its heydey it had a ferris wheel and was packed with GIs just back from war.
Though unhappy that analog film is going the way of the VCR, he keeps the drive-in going because it’s in his blood.
“The industry is forcing us to do away with our beloved 35-millimeter film. We’re doing it for the people and the memories. It’s to maintain a degree of relief,” he said. “There’s not much in America to be a part of anymore.”
Tevanian, who hopes to pass the business on to his teenage son, says he’ll ask the bank for a loan to stay in the game.
“Not many people have that kind of money to put into a seasonal business. It would be different if we were in California,” he said.
State Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said the town’s drive-in is more than a cultural relic.
“This is a local job creator; it employs a lot of young people. Our own mayor had his first job there,” he said.
And in a still-struggling economy, every job counts.
“We can’t lose any other businesses. We have to abide by the sign on the interstate that says open for business. Just click a mouse and you can save a business,” Chenette urged.
For Lisa Kendrick of Kennebunk, whose kids were gleefully running around the Saco Drive-in before showtime earlier this week, the alfresco screen represents the past and hopefully the future.
“I grew up coming here, now I’ve got my kids invested in it,” she said.
Her 8-year-old son Jameson, seated in the back seat, said the best part is, “you get to sit outside. It’s big and there’s a lot of room.”
All small theaters are facing conversion pains, but drive-ins, a brief, seasonal business, will be hit the hardest when 35 millimeter is obsolete.
“We do one show a night for three months,” said Russell. “Drive-ins were already a phased-out business. We will lose a few of the five we have left [in Maine].”
To cross the digital divide, The Skowhegan Drive-In has turned to crowdfunding site FundRazr. So far it has reached $285 of its $25,000 goal.
Owner Donald Brown said the campaign is not going well and he is taking a wait-and-see approach before he buys a new projector.
“I’m just going to ride out 35-millimeter film for as long as I can,” said Brown, who was assured that some film studios will continue to produce old-style film through 2015.
Though his website states that if the theater doesn’t significantly raise the cost of admission, “when 35mm film is no longer being produced, there will be no movies at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre,” he has no plans to raise ticket prices anytime soon.
To forfend a similar fate, John Tevanian, who owns the Bridgton Twin Drive-In, built a new concession stand last winter. It includes a climate-controlled room for a soon-to-come digital projector and two gas deep fryers for new items such as onion rings. All told he will spend $500,000 on upgrades in the next year.
“Dollar and cents wise, what I’m doing doesn’t make any sense,” said John Tevanian, Andrew’s brother. “But you either walk away or do something. And I wanted to stay.”
Already this season, concession stand sales have increased 15 percent over last year, he said.
His brother, who grew up working at the drive-in, says as long as he is alive, in Westbrook, the show will go on.
“I have a lot of pride in it. It’s not a moneymaker, this is my family … If I say losing a drive-in is like losing my life, that’s accurate.“
Kathleen Pierce can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Piercenews.