Labor Day weekend is traditionally a season finale for drive-in movie theaters. But at least two in Vermont could close for good. The movie industry will stop distributing 35 millimeter films in January, and move into digital production. But the cost of digital projectors is through the roof for most small drive-ins, including the Fairlee Drive-In on Route 5.
At about six every night during the summer, Peter Trapp drives from his farm in Piermont, New Hampshire to the Fairlee theater next to a motel he also owns.
He unlocks the chain link fence and strolls to the faded wooden ticket booth. There’s a package on the floor.
“One of the films showed up—let’s see, 'Percy Jackson,'” Trapp mutters. “We gotta turn on the lights and—I think we’re in business.”
But will he be in business this time next year? Selling t-shirts and posters he and his family have raised about twenty thousand dollars toward the cost of a new projector which would be about eighty thousand dollars. The Fairlee Drive-In has also entered an online contest sponsored by Honda. Winners get free projectors. But Trapp admits those odds are long for a small theater in a small state. Meanwhile, he has kept his ten-year-old film projector running through this soggy summer, even when only one car has showed up.
“We can survive a slow year. We can’t survive a slow year with a thousand dollar-a-week payment,” Trapp explains.
That’s what he figures he would owe if he borrows money for a projector. He heads across a field studded with ageing car speakers to the projection coop. Someone once broke into it.
“So I had to build a new door. Substantial,” he says, unlocking it.
He shows off shiny stainless steel discs the size of hula hoops that automatically feed spools of film into the projector. Then he fires up the speakers that play musical interludes before the film starts.
All this relatively new equipment will be obsolete by January, but Trapp isn’t really sure what form digital cinema will take. Hard drives? DVD’s? Big questions, but no bigger than whether he can afford to make this conversion. And he isn’t the only drive-in operator in Vermont who’s struggling.
Adam Gerhard leases the Randall Drive-In in Bethel.
“Unless we find a way to go digital this will be the last Labor Day as far as I can tell for this theater,” Gerhard says.
Gerhard’s in the Honda contest, too. But he’s collected only a few thousand dollars in other donations, so if he loses that online election, this could be curtains for the Randall Drive-In.
“Come early to catch a spot under the spot under the stars,” a voice implores on the theater's phone recording. “Ticket booth and snack bus will be open at 6:30 PM, till the last movie is over.”