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Mitchell’s drive-in theater to close: Nationwide digital conversion forces move, owner says

The Starlite Drive-In Theatre in Mitchell, S.D., pictured here, will close after the current season ends and likely will not reopen, owner Jeff Logan said Tuesday, July 16, 2013. (Jordan Steffen/Daily Republic)

MITCHELL, S.D. -- The Starlite Drive-In’s screen will soon go dark, possibly forever.

Jeff Logan, owner of the Starlite and Logan Luxury Theatres, said that due to changes in technology, the Mitchell drive-in will probably not reopen after it closes in September and undergoes its annual winterization process.

“We are going to run it right into the end, and then put it into mothballs,” Logan said.

By the end of the year, movie studios will switch from using film prints to digital, forcing theaters to convert. Logan has already converted the screens in his indoor theaters for a cost of $70,000 per screen. He said the cost to convert the drive-in isn’t economically viable, especially since digitization carries higher operating costs and the drive-in’s required projector would have to be the largest on the market.

“We’ve looked at what’s used, but basically the numbers just don’t work out,” Logan said. “We would never get that kind of investment back.”

Logan said he won’t be able to show older reel films at the drive-in, either. After a theater is finished screening a film, it sends the $2,000 film print back to the studio, where it is either stored or destroyed.

“There will be no movies to run,” Logan said.

A short drive-in season and varying weather can cause unpredictable business at drive-ins. Lawn mowing, grounds maintenance, year-round taxes and the high cost of opening and closing the Starlite pinch the numbers even further. Even if the theater were to find cheap equipment, expensive bulbs and required engineering could cause financial struggles, Logan said.

Logan said purchasing the equipment would be economical if the theater was located farther south, where the weather creates a longer season, or if the Starlite were close to a large population area. He expects the change to force the closure of many of the nation’s drive-ins. The Starlite is believed to be one of only six drive-in theaters still operating in South Dakota.

This season, the Starlite underwent several changes, including additional food options at the concession stand and screening first-run films on their national release day instead of later.

“It’s been one of our best years in a long time,” Logan said. “Even when you’re doing as good as we’re doing, when you do the math, the projections aren’t there.”

If the drive-in doesn’t reopen, then the land could be redeveloped or sold, and funds from the Starlite could be redirected to the addition of more screens to the Luxury 5 Cinemas in downtown Mitchell. Logan owns buildings next to the theater, and he plans to add more auditoriums in the next few years.

The drive-in employs about 20 seasonal staff, most of whom also work at the indoor theater.

In 2008, the Starlite Drive-In was listed as one of Time magazine's “50 Authentic American Experiences,” and it is known for its authentic dancing hotdog commercials.

The theater was last reopened 20 years ago after it was closed in 1986. It originally opened in 1949 as the Lake Vue Drive-In Theater. The facility is just east of Lake Mitchell on the city’s northern edge.

“We are going to run it as if we are going to go on,” Logan said.

The Starlite’s last showing is uncertain due to weather, but is expected to be during the Longfellow School Carnival on Sept. 21.

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