CRESCENT CITY — Bill Thomas cut through the tape on the box labeled Man of Steel, pulled out one of seven reels of film and set it on the platter system next to the drive-in’s 35-millimeter projector.
Reels from other movies shown at Red’s Crescent Drive-In crowd the shelves of the theater’s projector room along with smaller trailer reels. A handful of old metal speakers hang on the wall even though the single-screen theater doesn’t use them anymore.
“The old man showed me how to run the projector at 15,” Thomas said on Tuesday, referring to his father Leon, or “Red,” who died in 2004. “We used to splice (the film) with glue.”
Last year, Bill and Bert Thomas decided to close the drive-in earlier than usual due to poor ticket sales. The brothers then began proceedings for selling the theater, consulting a real estate agent and posting a for-sale sign. So far, nothing has panned out, Bert Thomas said.
This year business has picked up. Even though the brothers dropped the admission price by $2, the theater is making more money, Thomas said. But Hollywood’s intention to distribute movies in a digital-only format by the end of the year may drive Red’s out of business for good, he said.
There’s still a for-sale sign posted despite the upswing in business, Thomas said.
“Even if we do sell it (the owner) will still have to convert it to digital,” Thomas said. “We had priced it at $399,000 and dropped it down by $70,000. We estimate that’s what a new system will cost.”
But a promotion from Honda, with the community’s support, may make it easier for the Thomas family to hold on to Red’s. The car company’s new contest, Project Drive-In, will award five drive-in theaters digital movie projectors. Winners will be decided by the number of votes a theater receives.
If enough people vote, Red’s could be one of those five, Bert Thomas said. Red’s was the only drive-in theater in California participating as of Friday, according to projectdrivein.com.
“We’re not going to win if we don’t try,” he said.
The conversion to digital is cost-prohibitive for many drive-in theaters, most of which are family-owned, said Honda spokeswoman Jessica Fini. In addition to saving five theaters the cost of purchasing a digital projector, Honda also hopes to bring awareness to their struggle, she said.
Roughly 60 drive-ins nationwide are currently participating in the promotion, Fini said. People have until Sept. 9 to vote, she said. The winners will be announced at the end of September.
“There’s a lot of good nostalgic memories surrounding drive-ins,” Fini said. “It was a natural fit for us to support that movement.”
Even though people have a month to vote, the Project Drive-In campaign will continue beyond the Sept. 9 deadline, Fini said. Folks will have an opportunity to contribute to the cause as well as participate in a fundraising auction online for tickets to see “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” she said.
Theaters will also be able to continue using the campaign’s promotional materials after the voting is over, Fini said.
“We’ll continue efforts on our own Facebook page,” she said.
In addition to paying for the digital projector, the format conversion may also require Red’s to upgrade its sound system, Thomas said. One drive-in had to raise $90,000 to weather the digital conversion, he said.
Thomas estimated that the reason for the digital conversion is the film industry’s attempt to reduce shipping costs. Fox has already started to distribute its movie trailers digitally, he said. And even though a few people have asked the drive-in to play older movies, they’re often harder to get and more expensive than their newer counterparts, Thomas said.
“The only way to keep running is to get a digital system,” he said.
The Thomas family has been in the drive-in business for more than five decades. They acquired the Terrace Drive-In near Brookings in 1959 and re-named it Red’s Drive-In. The family expanded in 1980, buying Ocean Drive-In on Elk Valley Cross Road and turning it into Red’s Crescent Drive-In.
A year after the Thomases expanded, a winter storm blew down the screens at both drive-ins, leading Leon Thomas to close the Brookings theater. The family also owned Red’s Showcase Twin Cinemas in Crescent City for about 20 years before it closed in 2007.
If Red’s is able to make the conversion to digital, in addition to the projector and sound system, the theater may have to update its ventilation system and install high-speed internet in the projection room, Bill Thomas said.
“Anybody who knows more about computers probably knows more (about digital) than I do,” he said, adding that he still rewinds the film reels by hand. “It’s like the Flintstones turning into the Jetsons.”
To participate in Project Drive-In and vote for Red’s Crescent Drive-In, visit projectdrivein.com. To vote via cell phone, text Vote87 to 444999.