The Big Mo: Beating the odds, adapting to the future

  • Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 12:51 p.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, March 17, 2013 1:09 p.m.
Staff Photo by Stephanie Turner
Richard Boaz, co-owner of Monetta Drive-In, wants to hold onto to film as long as possible. He is standing with a celluloid projector in the screening room that is for Screen 2.
Staff Photo by Stephanie Turner Richard Boaz, co-owner of Monetta Drive-In, wants to hold onto to film as long as possible. He is standing with a celluloid projector in the screening room that is for Screen 2.

Chris and Danielle Newhouse sit on lounge chairs in their folded-out truck bed. The day is dimming down; the country breeze flits through. Jacob Thomas Newhouse and Emma Morgan stand beside them, young, spirited and ready to go for anything.

It was a Sunday evening, and the group had came out to Aiken County's Monetta Drive-In Theatre for the night to see “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

And, they were not the only ones. A handful of cars were parked around the screen, settled in for the show.

But, across the U.S., drive-ins like Monetta are being threatened.

At one point, customers had at least a 50 percent chance to run across a drive-in; now, they don't even have a 2 percent chance, according to “The Hutchinson News.”

Change in technology has the starring role in this fact.

The movie industry is now in a digital age, and movie theater owners are “squirreling away” money just to stay open.

At least that's how Richard and Lisa Boaz, co-owners of the Aiken County Monetta Drive-In Theatre, are doing it.

“Digital projection is a major threat to independent movie theaters,” Lisa said. “A lot of them won't make the transition.  We hope to be one that does.”

Theaters have been having to shell out $70,000 or more to convert their equipment, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“But, ultimately there's going to be a time where you going to have to lay the money on the table, or you are going to have to be out of business,” Richard said.

More than 65 percent of U.S. movie theaters made the switch, as of 2011, according to a Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. survey.

By 2015, it projected every theater will be converted to digital, as predicted by Texas Instruments Inc., which makes the DLP Cinema computer chips used in digital projectors.

Looking to the future

With these facts laid before them, the Boazs know digital is inevitable.

Lisa hopes to at least make it through the season, until November, with the old way – with film.

However, that doesn't mean, they aren't preparing.

The picture and sound

According to Richard, digital movies show brighter than the film-ones. He even has been to drive-in theaters where the owners had to refurbish the screens to tone down the brightness.

For his wife, Lisa, and his theater, he is not really as concerned with that part of it.

“I don't think it will rather matter, if its bright,” he said. “(For) People into the movie, they aren't going to notice stuff like that.”

But he has the maintenance aspect to consider.

“We are replacing the bulbs on the main field and screen 2,” Richard said. “The last thing you want is for the bulb to blow up and take out the screen.”

Currently, the viewer tunes into an off-site radio station to listen to the movie through the car speakers.

“We have low-frequency transmitter radios that give out frequencies to people with radios,” Richard said, adding loaner radios are available.

Once the converted-theater is running, viewers will still be able to listen in from the comfort of their cars. The only change that will happen is behind the speakers.

“Sound will be delivered in, I believe, 5.1 digital sound,” Richard said. “We'll just basically have a processor that will convert the 5.1 channel system into a 2 channel stereo.”

Holding onto the present

“By the time the dust settles, with the renovations we have to do, you got to basically make these computer rooms,” Richard said. “So we have to do renovations. You are talking about an expenditure of somewhere in the range of $80,000.”

As of July 2012, the Monetta Drive-in, also known as the Big-Mo, was one of 368 drive-ins in the U.S., with fewer than six in South Carolina.

Currently, the three screening rooms at the Big-Mo all contain celluloid projectors and other equipment built for the traditional movie-going experience.

The studio ships Boazs the movies they pick – and often can get – in white reels. Richard then takes the 20-minute film reels and “splices” them together, making what audiences see: two feature films and an intermission.

“I always tell people what you see out here is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There's a (ton of) working parts behind the scenes to make it happen out here. … I'll generally spend an hour per film putting it together and 45 minutes to an hour taking it apart. And I work a day job too, so you spend the math on how much time it takes.”

Richard is a librarian with the federal courts in Columbia, while Lisa works closely with the Big Mo daily.

The movie trailers come separately, and Boaz has a habit of holding onto them.

“Maybe (I'll) throw up a trailer festival,” he said, as he passed a whole heap of them.

Now, how the movies are projected out over the field does differ depending on the booth and, therefore, equipment set-up.

In general, Richard, and whoever else might be around to help out, places the movie that is going to be shown onto a tower. From there, the worker pulls out the film strip and reels it through an empty reel.

He them pulls the film strips over to the projector, where he sets into place, adjusts it and turns the projector on.

And then, he walks over to the next field, and the next, to start those two up.

If it was possible, holding onto this “old-school” method might be a neat niche.

“I think it will only be a selling point,” Richard said. “You know 'Last theater in America with film – the way movies were meant to be seen.'”

But, all jest aside, he is hoping to keep at least one projector around after the conversion.

History remains

The Boazs might be trying to transport the Big Mo to the future, but they have been keeping their theater's past around since they bought it.

When you go to the Big Mo, you might be instructed by Richard, or whoever is manning the ticket booth, to go to the field where your double-feature will be shown.

If your movie is shown on the main field, for example, you will be instructed to go to right and curve to the center.

Got the movie munchies? Walk to the back of the main field to the Train Station, or the concession stand.

There you'll find movie posters of the MGM musicals “Nancy Goes to Rio” and “The Wizard Oz” hanging on the wall; so far, nothing odd. Going back to your car, concessions in hand, you hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing through the car windows; the movie is about to start.

Now, let's go back to April 26, 1951, when cars came to the Monetta Drive-in for the first time.

Anxious customers were sitting out on, best-guess, the current-main field; yes, today's main field is the Monetta Drive-In's first field.

The national anthem probably was played before the movie was even thought of in the audiences' minds.

“It use to be sort of the traditional thing they did at drive-ins,” Richard said.

What the audience was watching: “Nancy Goes to Rio,” the first film shown at the drive-in.

Where the film was being projected: From where the concession stands are now. As a matter of fact, next time you are by there, just take a closer look between those two posters. You will probably then notice a door, and, behind this door is nothing other than the original screening room.

And it doesn't stop there.

The Boazs obtained the theater in 1999, and, on March 26, 1999, their premiere film took viewers into the Merry Old Land of Oz with the 1939 production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“We played it 60 years after its release, and not a moment too soon, I might add,” Richard said.

Today at Big Mo

The Big Mo is located at 5822 Columbia Highway North, Monetta.

Tickets are $8 for those 12 and older, $4 for those 4 to 11 and free for those 3 and under. One ticket covers the cost of two back-to-back movies, but be advised that you cannot leave and come back, or switch fields without repaying.

Concessions are offered on the main field, though sometimes a secondary trailer will be taken out onto screen 2.

Only cash is accepted at the Big Mo.

The theater generally stays open, unless the power goes out, Richard said.

Turn off lights and vehicle during the show. Your radio can be picked up, when your car is set in accessory mode, i.e. with just the battery running. If you need your vehicle running for heating and cooling air units, park towards the back.

Smoking is permitted, though limited; just throw the butts away in your car's ashtrays. Pets can be brought, if they are looked after and well-behaved.

To read more about the Big Mo, visit its website at www.thebigmo.com or its Facebook listed under Monetta Drive-In Theatre.

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