EARLVILLE – When the sun set last Friday, Ron Magnoni Jr. went into the projection booth of Route 34 Drive-In that’s been in his family for decades.
With the film already loaded onto the projector, Magnoni fired it up and adjusted the lens, then voilà – a 60-foot by 40-foot white slab was covered with babbling yellow “Minions” in front of 350 carloads of families and friends.
It’s like second nature to Magnoni.
“I’ve been at this drive-in for 29 years, and since I was about 5 years old I’ve been in projection booths,” he said. “My dad was a union projectionist for Kerasotes.”
But the movie business is changing.
Time is running out for one of the state’s few remaining drive-ins, about 40 miles south of DeKalb in LaSalle County, to raise the funds to convert its film projector to a digital one. Eventually, the major movie studios will stop printing their movies on 35mm film and only provide theaters with digital copies. The drive-in has raised $30,000 so far for a $70,000 projector.
Magnoni already spent $10,000 renovating the projection booth for the digital projector, which includes adding glass and new projection windows to keep the booth climate-controlled.
He said he doesn’t know when the movie business will go entirely digital, but it could potentially happen before next season.
“Right now, they still make prints, but they don’t make a lot and they don’t make them for every movie,” he said. “But if something makes a lot of money, they come knocking on my door.”
Revving up business
Jason Ladson, his wife Shannon and his daughter Isabelle, all from Spring Valley, were the first car in line for the drive-in’s double feature last Friday, which included the opening night of “Minions,” followed by the latest Pixar hit “Inside Out.”
“I’m excited about it,” Ladson said. “I enjoy the cartoons just like the kids do.”
It’s been a blockbuster of a summer at the movies – at least at the indoor multiplexes. While movies like “Jurassic World,” “Inside Out” and “Minions” have seen huge numbers at the box office, the constant rain has kept business at bay for Route 34 Drive-In for most of the summer because it’s rained most weekends. The drive-in doesn’t operate on weekdays.
“The season has not been good. It won’t stop raining on me,” Magnoni said. “It seems like every Saturday, it rains. Nobody wants to come in the rain. I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to sit out there either.”
So when the weather kept dry last Friday, families across the area showed up in droves, and Ladson ended up leading a line of cars that stretched down Route 34 and snaked around side streets.
Magnoni let 350 cars into the drive-in Friday, but still had to turn 150 away, he said. Cars continued to pack the grounds and children threw balls and bounced around all the way up to showtime.
Ken Edwards of Spring Valley was passing down the tradition of attending the drive-in Friday night with his three daughters, Alyssa, Jordan and Kailay – who all wore yellow “Minions” shirts.
“I grew up in Paw Paw so I’ve been coming here a lot,” Edwards said. “It’s a unique experience. Not a lot of people have been to the drive-in.”
He was referring to his friend who joined him and his daughters, Jamie Kammers of Minooka.
“I honestly didn’t know there were any around,” she said.
Making the switch
Though clear nights and kiddie films are a potent business mix, Magnoni said 70 percent of every dollar goes back to the movie studios, so it does little to help him afford the digital projector.
Film is not a completely dead technology, Magnoni said. When “Furious 7” did gangbuster business at the box office in April, Universal Pictures contacted him to open earlier to show the film reel, which he did.
The drive-in is open from April to October, weather permitting. The “Minions” and “Inside Out” double feature will run at least until next week, when “Minions” will most likely be paired with a film reel of “Jurassic World,” Magnoni said. Next month, he plans to show “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” with “Terminator Genisys” – both on 35mm.
“Most of the big [studios] still make film,” Magnoni said. “It’s the little ones like Weinstein and Miramax that don’t. They make offbeat movies anyway.”
Magnoni said he’s against digital projectors.
“If something breaks with the film reel, I know how fix it,” he said. “When something happens to the digital projector, you’re done for the night. With the digital machine, you have nothing to do. It starts, it runs, it’s done. There’s nothing to touch, nothing to focus.”
Patrons on Friday night voiced concern about the possibility of losing the drive-in if fundraising isn’t met.
“It’s something cool that would be taken away. We don’t have another one around us to go to,” said Tasha Artaga of Mendota. “It’s just something different for the kids, and I’d be sad. They’d be sad.”
Edwards said the drive-in experience is more than what kind of film format is used.
“I think people come to the drive-in more for the experience rather the whole digital [and] surround sound setting,” he said. “I think it’s more the experience of coming to the drive-in and hanging out during the summertime.”