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DAMIAN DOMINGUEZ | INDEX-JOURNAL

The projectors at the drive-in theater sit exactly 250 feet away from the screens, said owner Carolyn McCutcheon.


How does movie magic get from Hollywood to the big screen?

For Carolyn McCutcheon at the drive-in theater, she thought all she had to do was call the movie studios.

"When you call a studio, they just hang up on you," she said. "Apparently, a lot of people try to do that -- but you have to go through a booker."

Standing under the newly renovated roof of the dining area, where up to 100 people can sit and see the sprawling main screen, McCutcheon said the process of movie buying can take some negotiating.

"We're a double feature, so two studios have to agree how to split the money," she said.

Across the grassy fields that can fit 750 cars, she walked into the projection room for screen two. Facing the window, a lens about the size of a grapefruit has its gaze fixed firmly on the rectangle of white metal exactly 250 feet away.

The hulking black projector behind the lens takes up nearly a quarter of the room. At the back of the system, a deck of electronics features a slot in it about the size of a VHS tape -- where McCutcheon said the hard drives sent from the bookers are inserted to play the digital films.

The hard drives are heftier than a VHS tape, and inside they have not only the files required to play the movie, but a numeric code customized to allow only a specific projector to run the files. She said this is to avoid having films be pirated, since the files are unplayable on any other device.

Atop the three bulky projectors at the drive-in, ventilation ducts are attached to a fan that lets hot exhaust pipe out of the projections rooms. Each room has a wall-mounted air conditioner and heater, as extreme temperatures can cause the projectors to stop working, she said.

Larger crowds were one part of the decision to build additional screens, but contractual requirements ended up demanding it. In many of the film contracts sent out by the studios, she said there are clauses that require the theater to keep running a movie for upwards of four weeks.

"For us, we got Harry Potter, all of them," she said. "On the first week we were packed. Then the next week we had half, and the next week half of that."

Despite dwindling viewership, they were required to keep playing the movies on their only screen. They built two additional screens so they could keep a fresher rotation of films on the largest screen, she said.

McCutcheon is on the board of directors for the United Drive-In Theatre Owner Association, a national group dedicated to preserving the traditions and experience of drive in theaters.

"When we decided to go digital, we lost so many drive ins because of the cost," she said.

The theater she runs with her husband Tommy McCutcheon switched to digital projectors in 2015. Before that, 35 millimeter film reels would be sent to them instead of hard drives -- and the finicky reels and projectors required a projectionist to be in the room at all times while a film was running.

Reels could be knocked off the projector, film could burn and any number of complications could require a quick fix. When hundreds of people are parked in the fields, eager to enjoy a movie, time is of the essence, she said.

The McCutcheons haven't had to juggle all these variables alone, as their son Tom works with them every weekend at the box office and is available to troubleshoot any problems that creep up, Carolyn said.

Movie magic extends beyond what's on the screen, as she explained that the newcomers and regulars alike in the audience make the experience of running the drive in a thrill.

People bring their lawn chairs and make friends among the crowd, she said, and several law enforcement officers have told her they bring their families to the drive in because it feels like a safe place to bring children. Everyone watches out for each other, she said.

"People have asked us, 'When are you going to retire,'" she said, with a laugh. "We love doing this -- we're in our element."

Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.