Indiana drive-ins: 30 years behind the reel 

The man behind the movies at Tibbs drive-in

click to enlarge Mark Sarris
  • Mark Sarris

Maybe you think projectionists get to see the countless films they show. Unfortunately, there's a big difference between seeing a film and working a film, and Mark Sarris has been working films for the past 30 years.

"You don't have time to watch the movies," he said. "You have to make sure the audience can watch it."

In 1986, Sarris began his career as a union-certified projectionist. With the projectionist business running in the family, he decided in high school that screening movies would be his life plan, too. He has worked the famous four projectors at the Tibbs Drive-In since 2000.

In the era of film reels, the small room holding the four projectors would be too cluttered to walk through, he said. There would be just enough room for the projectors, the reels, Sarris and his rocking chair, but he didn't get much use out of the chair. Often on his feet, Sarris would have to be prepared to switch reels so the experience was as seamless as possible.

Tibbs is in their third season with digital projectors, and the room is now more breathable both in physical space and in workflow. Sarris no longer has to be prepared to switch reels in the blink of an eye. Also, although the image is darker than the old film reels, Sarris said the quality of the image is significantly better than 35mm reels.

The six-figure investment made Sarris' job easier, but he said not much has changed as far as queueing up the films, ads and welcome slides. One of his biggest complaints with the digital films is the potential for corrupt files.

"We never lost a movie in 35mm," he said. "With these digital films, if the file is messed up, it's gone."

With more projectors than hands, Sarris is a master of his craft, but he stays humble. With his free time on the clock, he can be seen working downstairs in the concession stand as well, helping the young employees who use this job as a means to pay for college. He knows how to pop the popcorn and serve the guests.

He also remembers faces. With so many years under his belt, he has met and befriended many Tibbs regulars. Every week, on either Friday or Saturday, he gets to see Steve and Diane, a couple who have traveled and visited all the drive-ins in the state, but have deemed Tibbs their favorite.

Sarris said he prefers working as a drive-in projectionist due to the unforgettable environment. "There's good food, there's privacy in your car, and you can bring your pets," he said. "This was even before my time, but people used to wear suits and ties to the movies. At the drive-in, you don't have to worry about that."

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