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99W Drive-In prepared to open for the season

Classic tradition continues for its 63rd year, promising to bring large weekend crowds


If the recent bouts of sunshine haven’t done the trick, there’s another sure sign that spring and summer are approaching: the 99W Drive-In is opening this weekend for its 63rd year, continuing the classic tradition of weekend enjoyment.

The 2016 season kicks off Friday and Saturday with showings of “Zootopia” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” theater proprietor Brian Francis said.

Last year was the highest-grossing season for the drive-in that Francis has ever seen.GARY ALLEN - The 99W Drive-In is gearing up to open this weekend. One of four drive-in theaters remaining in Oregon, the Newberg landmark has been operating since 1953.

“I finally got off the Friday, Saturday, Sunday thing I’ve been stuck with and started doing Thursdays during the high season,” he said. That season runs roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day and opening up for an extra day had a big impact.

Opening this coming weekend is about a week earlier than Francis usually starts the season. It varies from year to year, but usually the theater opens around the time of most spring breaks when people start to get into the drive-in mindset.

“They tend to come earlier in the season, rather than after Labor Day,” Francis said. That’s the case even though the weather in September is often warmer than the early spring weeks. “There’s a gene in people and the idea of going to a drive-in switches off with them.”

A lot has changed with the drive-in business over the years, most noticeably the decline of drive-in locations. When 99W founder and Newberg theater titan Ted Francis opened the drive-in during the summer of 1953, they were found just about everywhere.

Now, there are only four drive-ins remaining in Oregon, with the next-nearest location in Dallas. While the industry has shrunk immensely, that often translates to booming business for the drive-ins that remain.

The general wisdom used to be, Brian Francis said, that “when the sun’s going down that’s a good time to go out and see the drive-in.” Dusk would be setting in, there would be banjo music coming through the warm summer air, and folks could, on a whim, head on down to the local drive-in that was a fixture in every town.

These days, it’s a little different. The movies still start when the sun goes down, but the preparations begin long before that.

“Sometimes people line up at 4:30 or 5,” Francis said.

Between 250 and 300 cars can fit in the drive-in space, and while that might be enough to comfortably house the local crowd, the dearth of drive-in theaters statewide means multitudes come from out of town and descend on the outdoor theater.

“Lots of people go once a year or so, others have a habit and go to every show,” Francis said. “It can be explosive.”

Another element that’s changed? How the movies are projected. Obtaining films for the old analog projector Francis used at the drive-in became cost prohibitive – film prints run about $1,500 to $2,000 to produce, a cost that started getting passed on to theater owners as more theaters went digital so prints were in less demand.

But installing a digital projector was also a daunting task, with a $65,000 price tag on the projector itself and nearly $20,000 more in associated installation costs.

Fortune shined on the drive-in when Honda held a contest in 2013 to provide five drive-in theaters around the country with new digital projects, allowing them to stay viable without breaking the bank.

The 99W Drive-In’s large contingent of dedicated followers cast a huge number of votes for the Newberg mainstay, and it was among the five winners of the nationwide contest. The projector was provided by Honda free of charge, was installed and the coming season will be its third year running.

The Cameo Theatre in downtown Newberg also went through the digital conversion process, which Francis paid for since the drive-in got such a good deal. When that analog projector went away, it meant a conundrum for the Twin Cinema, which had opened in 1983 as an indoor theater on the drive-in property. The Twin got its movies from the Cameo after they had finished their run, but with no more analog prints that supply line disappeared.

Rather than install a third digital projector, Francis opted to close the twin theaters and utilize some of the freed-up space for additional parking for the drive-in screen.

Other things have remained the same at the local landmark, however.

The admission prices have not changed, $8 for adults, $5 for youths ages 6 through 11, and free for children 5 and under. Admission for a vehicle with one occupant costs $12.

Also, Francis reminds moviegoers, marijuana remains illegal in public places such as the drive-in.

As to the films that will be played this season, it depends on what is popular in the coming months.

Francis is often asked why he doesn’t play any classic movies at the drive-in. His answer? Actually, the 99W does run classics. Sometimes people expect a drive-in to show nothing but classics, as they often do on the East Coast where public domain films such as “Night of the Living Dead” are standard for the drive-in scene. While he hasn’t gone that route, Francis still shows the occasional audience favorite, like “The Goonies,” which he screened in a recent season.

“I think it for sure sold out the theater,” he said. “I do really well with old movies.”

He’s kicking around a few ideas for the coming season – it might be time to bring back “Grease,” he said, and with David Bowie’s death early this year he’s thinking about bringing in “Labyrinth.”

“Once I get open with the theater I’ll start feeling good and thinking of some titles I might want to run,” he said.

For now, he’s finishing up the last few preparations and making sure everything is working before he opens the gates and signals the coming summer season.

“I’m kind of shy about getting it going sometimes,” Francis said.

If last year is any indication, the audiences won’t be shy in their attendance.

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