Moving pictures, as they were once called, used to be just that: thousands of individual still images speeding past a reflector, light bulb and lens. The projector would mold together the images, which move so fast the human eye reads them as fluid motion. In just one second, 24 individual images, or frames, would pass by the lens of the projector. Basic math tells us an average 90-minute film would then consist of 129,600 frames.
Of course, these frames weren't kept on a hard drive and emailed to theaters; they had to be physically mailed to each theater, and then properly returned. With 129,600 frames, each being 35mm long, film reels were massive, totaling about 15,000 feet on average.
Film, like most other technology, is now in the digital realm. Not only are theaters practically forced to use digital projectors, but more films are shot using digital cameras as well. Although movies are still distributed on film, the number of film reels has plummeted, forcing theaters to compete for these rare films. As a result, many drive-ins that used film projectors either had to empty their pockets or close up shop.
A third option was for drive-ins to switch to digital projectors. However, not many have been able to make the leap into the modern era. Because a solid majority of ticket sales go directly to the studios, drive-ins rely on concession sales alone to stay afloat. Bloomington's Starlite Drive-In, a seasonal business, just this year finally afforded a brand new $50,000 digital projector. (That's a lot of popcorn sold.) Indianapolis' Tibbs Drive-In also recently made the digital leap on all four of their projectors, a major investment for the theater.
Fortunately, the benefits of going digital outweigh the hefty startup price. First, it results in a much cleaner, crisper image. Second, it is easier to learn and operate, which decreases the risk of lighting flammable films on fire. Third, the film is stored on a hard drive, which takes up less room physically and is easier to distribute. Fourth, it is much cheaper for smaller theaters and drive-ins to afford digital versions of films rather than film versions. In this last season, Starlite owner Mark Freeman said it became more and more difficult to acquire film reels of many new films: "It's like pulling teeth out of a chicken."