Dan’s Drive-In Theater

What? Another festival rejection? Is scorn heaped upon you because your epic masterpiece is shot on video and not on film? You probably deserve to have your work seen by an audience larger than just the pre-screeners at festivals.

As a broadcast production professor at Cameron University in southwest Oklahoma, I constantly encourage my students to produce better programming. To gain a larger audience, the students and I decided to show their work by building a drive-in theater. Dan Perrin, a student and farmer, had a large open area in which to hold the event. We had the space to park the cars, but what were we going to do for a screen? Dan graciously volunteered to build the screen. The screen consisted of 4×8-foot sheets of plywood braced together by two-by-sixes. When completed, the screen’s dimensions were sixteen feet by twenty feet.

Dan planned to drag the screen over to the barn, flip it over and raise it using the front-end loader on his tractor. This was harder than it sounded. The screen moved and even flipped over easily; however, as Dan raised the screen, two of the supporting legs broke. He cut off the remaining legs and finished raising the screen but it was now shorter than planned. Dan used household caulk to fill in the cracks and scuffs caused by raising the screen and then painted the entire surface with a flat white latex paint.

We borrowed a Telex video projector to project our S-VHS tapes onto the screen. Having never used this particular type of projector, we all worried that the image would be blurry, too dim, and not large enough to fit our vertically challenged screen. Also, for some strange reason, whenever we tested out the projector, the bulb blew out. It was getting uncomfortably close to our announced date of the drive-in and we still hadn’t successfully projected an image onto the screen! A test was a luxury we would never get to perform prior to the premiere.

We also had to figure out how to get the audio to our audience members. Stringing up 50 speakers to hang on car windows was not an option! I contacted an engineer friend at another university who suggested a radio transmitter kit which could be tuned to an unused frequency and would cost about $15. Designed to broadcast for a short distance over the FM band, the transmitter would allow viewers to tune in the audio on their car radios.

We used a microphone and the VCR’s audio output hooked into a simple mixer and then routed the audio into the transmitter. We setup an old clock radio to monitor the sound. All of the audio equipment and the projector were set on a picnic table placed in the back of an old dump truck.

We then turned our attention to attracting an audience to our premiere. Some of the students wanted to advertise and charge admission; others felt that this would cause unnecessary problems. So we decided to have a free-but-by-invitation-only screening. Our invitation list grew so long that we decided to have a two-night exhibition. The first night would be the big opening for the majority of guests and the press. The second night would be family night so faculty members and those guests with children could come and enjoy the experience.

At about 8:30 p.m. on show night, the audience began arriving. The sun finally set, we turned on the Telex and popped in the first tape. The image fit perfectly on the screen. The image was bright, clear and didn’t keystone. The audio was strong and clear.

The audience had the opportunity to see about three hours of programming. The subject matter ranged from alien visits to a secret murder squad. Over 200 people attended the first "Dan’s Drive-in." Our next drive-in night will take place in the Spring. In the meantime, the students are busy producing new programs for the next big drive-in screening.

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