RIVERDALE -- It was a quiet Monday afternoon. Brent Coleman pecked away at the keyboard in his office, tucked discreetly behind the snack bar that ravenous crowds would fill later that night as the sun sloped down.
He was interrupted and spun a quarter-turn in his chair, his round face brightening. He was eager to talk about this place, where the memories are as thick as the summer heat with which the fan whirring in the background was battling. Pointing to a bare spot on the wall, near the Coca-Cola sign that hung behind his chair, he smiled.
"The speaker used to be there," he said.
Outside the window, viewed through the slats in the blinds, a white brute surged into the sky. It was there, in the small office, that Coleman and his brothers used to gather and watch movies on the large drive-in screen, cars packed in tight rows outside.
As the memories flow, Coleman, the co-owner and president of the Motor-Vu Drive-In theater in Riverdale, sits back in his chair. He can rest easy, knowing the future of the place that has meant so much to his family is secure, as shifts in technology present a tenuous future for the drive-in industry.
Over the past several years, Coleman explains, the movie studios have been preparing to essentially phase out 35 millimeter film altogether and instead distribute only digital copies of movies. Coleman predicts that by March, film will be little more than another dusty relic lost to history.
"It's been the last five years they've really put the push on," he said.
For many of the roughly 350 drive-ins still left in the country, the shift to digital could signal the death knell. While Coleman has an optimistic outlook on the future of drive-ins, The Associated Press reports that many in the industry believe the high cost of the digital projectors may force a large chunk of the remaining theaters -- which weathered the rise of televisions and the advent of home video -- to close their doors.
"These things run anywhere from $60,000 or $80,000 a screen," Coleman said. "And that's just the equipment. That doesn't include getting them installed or anything."
However, a stroke of good fortune is allowing Coleman to avoid those costs and look forward to a future where the movies keep dancing up there on the screen, and the crowds keep flocking. Coleman's brothers, Bruce and Dale -- both co-owners of the drive-in -- work for other theater companies, and Coleman was able to snag digital projectors that were being replaced from their theaters. He plans to install them in September on his four screens.
"The cost savings is quite a bit for me," Coleman said, noting there are other cost considerations in addition to the projectors themselves, such as proper power requirements and computer infrastructure for the projectors.
Later that week, Jon Allen wandered through the crowds as the sun submerged beyond the hill to the west and a purple dusk settled across the sky. Two years after Coleman's father, Howard, bought the drive-in, in 1979, he hired Allen, who then was fresh out of high school. Except for one four-year period when Allen left, he has been a projectionist at the theater. He still operates a projector four nights a week.
"Ever since I was a kid, I wondered what was going on in that booth," he said, pointing to a small shack that houses the projector for one of the theater's screens.
For Allen, being a projectionist is less of a job than a delicate art, honed through years of careful attention. A mix of pride and pleasure comes into his voice when he describes the process of fixing scratches on film: "You won't find a single film with scratches on it here."
To him, digital projectors represent the end of a slice of cinema magic that stretches back to the invention of moving pictures.
"It's emotional for me, to be honest," he said. "I hope film doesn't completely disappear."
Even Allen admits, however, that the new projectors will afford the theater several modern luxuries that should enhance the customer experience. Gone will be the imperfections of film on the screen, replaced with a crisp picture. The sound pumping through cars' FM radios will be better, too.
Most importantly, though, the digital projectors will ensure the existence of a theater that throughout the years has overcome every obstacle facing the drive-in industry. The majority of the roughly 4,000 drive-in theaters that once existed in America are already gone, morphed into housing developments or commercial lots, and more are sure to follow. But the theater that Coleman's father left to his children will remain.
"We're a fixed part of the community," Coleman said. "When the VHS came out in the '80s, drive-ins went by the wayside. There were six or seven drive-ins around here. My father had the wherewithal that he held it in there through the down times."
For many in the community, the theater has long been a summer tradition. Pattie Coombs stood with her husband, Paul, underneath the lifted hatch of the back of their van, three young daughters sitting on the bumper. She had been watching the news a few days earlier when she heard of the danger the switch to digital was presenting for drive-ins and became worried that the Motor-Vu would close. That she'll instead be able to continue sharing drive-in experiences with her family every summer is a welcome fact.
"It's just like setting up a projector in the backyard," said Coombs, who was there to see a double feature of 'Planes' and 'Despicable Me 2.' "It's fun to be out, under the stars."
In his office, with the theater's original screen hulking above outside, Coleman attempted to explain what makes the drive-in so special. For him, it is the lineage he can trace through the theater to his father.
"When you're born into it, that's what you do," he said.
His father died last year, but up until a few years ago, Howard manned the box office seven nights a week. As Coleman readied for another night of summer crowds, he smiled at the thought of carrying on his father's legacy.
"We're going to be here for a long time. That's what we want to do," Coleman said. "You never know when that day will come when the property becomes more valuable than the business. For us, we're not looking for it, but that's the only way we'll ever disappear. We plan on being here as long as the community wants us. Being here forever is my goal."