MOUNT ZION, W.Va. -- Off the Big Otter exit of Interstate 79, out a winding two-lane road, on top of a grassy knoll sits a little piece of Americana from a bygone era. The Mt. Zion Drive-In Theater & Restaurant is a 90-minute drive from Charleston, but the relatively short trip is like traveling 50 years back in time.
Marshall and Virginia Bever bought the drive-in theater in 1979.
"That was the pinnacle of the drive-in era," recalls their daughter, Bonnie Sands, who works at the drive-in with her parents.
Originally from Craigsville, the Bevers were friends with the owner of the Craigsville Drive-In, a booming business in the late '70s. So when the Mount Zion drive-in, then known as Cook's Drive-In, became available, they made the move to Calhoun County. Sands remembered the family spending that first winter living in a room attached to the restaurant/snack bar.
In recent years, Sands said, there has been a resurgence of interest in drive-ins, but this newly rediscovered pleasure might be in jeopardy.
"There are rumors flying all around that we are going out of business because of the move toward digital prints. Do we plan to shut down? No. But if 35 mm film goes out of stock, yes, we would have to shut down. We wouldn't have a choice."
In many ways, Mt. Zion Drive-In holds tight to tradition. They still serve a large menu of movie fare, and the poles that once held the in-car speakers still divide the parking spaces. During intermission, they even show the "Ten Minute Clock," a short film that counts down the time remaining between movies with original drive-in ads from the '50s, '60s and '70s.
Over the years, Sands said, the drive-in has made many concessions to modernity. When CinemaScope came along, they accommodated the new wider movies by building wings onto the screen. And as sound technology advanced, they did away with the in-car speakers and installed an FM transmitter, which allowed patrons to listen to the stereo sound of their car speakers, or to bring radios and sit outside on lawn chairs.
But some advancements are just outside the realm of possibility for small operations like Mt. Zion.
"Our films still come on reels, which are going out of style. It costs more money to create and ship those prints than the new digital hard drives," Sands said. She estimated it would cost $85,000 to upgrade from 35 mm film to digital. "We just don't make that kind of money," she said.
In December, IHS Screen Digest reported that distribution of 35 mm film would be phased out by the end of 2013. Some distributors, like Technicolor, began closing 35 mm film labs in May.
The answer to Mt. Zion's problem, and a few other drive-ins like it, may come from an unlikely source. The automaker Honda has stepped in to save a least a few of the country's drive-ins with a contest called Project Drive-In.
An assistant manager of Honda's public relations, Jessica Fini, said, "We got word that the drive-ins across the country had to switch to digital projectors this year. We're a car company, and drive-ins are a car-related piece of Americana. We thought it was a great connection."