JOHNSTOWN— It's an unmistakable sound: The steady, crackling flutter of a film projector at work.
But that will soon be a sound of the past, it seems.
Hollywood's moviemakers are phasing out film stock for cheaper, higher-quality digital formats, a move that could signal the final frame for many of the nation's 368 remaining drive-ins, torchbearers of the 35 mm celluloid era.
But while film producers such as Fox, MGM and Paramount have already released plans to drop film by year's end, movies will keep rolling this summer at three Cambria County drive-ins, their owners say.
Don Gawel, owner of the Portage Bar-Ann Drive-in and Hi-Way Drive-in outside Carrolltown, hopes to start the season with high-definition projectors at both of his theaters. And Rick Rosko said the Silver Drive-in also will reopen for 2013 — even if it's on the gamble his old 35 mm projector will get him through one more season.
"I'm just doing what I have to do to keep our little piece of history alive here," Gawel said. "We don't have much of a choice."
It's not an easy decision, added Rosko, who's hopeful that costs to upgrade to digital will drop in the months ahead.
"When you're talking about spending $60,000 to replace one projector system, it's no pushover," he said.
Still, both men say they understand the reason for the switch. The digital format Hollywood's moviemakers prefer is cinematically superior. And film isn't cheap, Rosko noted.
It costs filmmakers about $150 to send theaters a digital copy of a film on a hard drive, Gawel said. To send a reel, they have to pay to have their digital film processed onto a 35 mm roll. That can cost up to $1,500 per film, he added.
"It can mean shipping the reels from Virginia onto a plane and then a cab," Rosko said. "And Hollywood hates losing money. We all know that."
Trouble is, most of the country's remaining drive-ins are small-time operations that operate on a part-time schedule, Rosko said. They have to rely on the summer's biggest hits, and nostalgia, to draw crowds, whereas indoor multiplexes can rely on a year's worth of hit movies and multiple screens to make money.
"For most drive-ins in this area, you get three good months to make money before you start running up against fall events and high school football games," Rosko said.
Rosko acknowledged he's rolling the dice by entering the 2013 season with his old projector. A few moviemakers have already dropped film. And while the major companies have said they plan to do the same by the end of the year, there's no guarantee they won't do it at midsummer.
But delaying should help his chances to find a cheaper projector, or even used one, Rosko said.
"I think a lot of us are just trying to make it one more summer, hoping the prices improve a little," he said.
He's also looking to see if there's a market for a 1948 portable projector, built within a stainless steel trailer. It's in good shape for its age. Rare, too, he said, noting that "with a little work, it would be a great, working exhibit in a museum."
Other theater owners are getting creative, too. Some are selling bumper stickers to raise funds.
In September, an Illinois couple turned to the online fundraising site Kickstarter aiming to raise $40,000 toward their digital conversion. They offered donors snacks, movie admissions and even private screenings for those pledging $500 donations. They fell short, collecting only $7,536.
It's sad to see, said Paul Geissinger, who has owned Shankweiler's, the nation's oldest continuously operating drive-in, since 1984.
Shankweiler's, in Lehigh County, has survived generations of new technologies, switching to speaker poles in 1948 and FM radio in 1986. And it will make the move to digital next year at a nearly $100,000 price tag, Geissinger said. But many others, perhaps half of the 368 left, won't make the cut, he added.
"Drive-in owners are a close bunch. When you hear about somebody closing, it becomes emotional," said Geissinger, who originally started working at his drive-in as a projectionist in 1971. "I wish everyone luck, because it's tough."
He hopes there's a silver lining, though. The switch to digital could also be a difference-maker for those able to survive the switch, he said.
"I went to a drive-in a few (months) ago in Albany (N.Y.) that had upgraded, and the difference from film was night and day," Geissinger said, calling the picture "stunning" under the night sky.
"It was like going to the drive-in for the first time all over again."