Digital or bust: Owner of Peninsula’s only drive-in asking for financial help with conversion
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Wheel-In Motor Movie owner Rick Wiley said he needs to raise roughly $20,000 in eight days in order to open for the season. Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — The Wheel-In Motor Movie, still closed a month later than its usual early May opening for the summer drive-in movie season, might not open at all if a fundraising goal is not met, its owner said.

“If I could handle this on my own, I could, but I can’t afford the conversion to digital,” Rick Wiley said of the $70,000 cost to make the change necessary for all modern movie theaters at the North Olympic Peninsula’s only drive-in theater.

“I don’t think the public should be asked to subsidize the whole thing, since we are a privately owned business, so we are only asking for half,” said the owner of the drive-in movie theater at 210 Theatre Road.

Wiley’s Kickstarter campaign is at

He said he has had 1,500 likes on his Facebook page and 2,000 hits on his website.

“If each of those people kicked in $10, it will assure that the Wheel-In will be here for their family and friends for a long time,” he said.

As of midafternoon Thursday, the campaign had raised $15,207 toward a $35,000 goal with nine days to go for the theater south of Port Townsend near the intersection of state highways 19 and 20.

The money must be pledged by 10:15 a.m. June 8 or none of it will be collected from the donors.

Incentives range from a small buttered popcorn and mention on the Wheel-In website for $25 to a $5,000 package that includes souvenir 35mm film strips, a sweatshirt, free advertising and a private screening for 100 people.

Wiley said he is out of money but could possibly secure a short-term loan to make up the difference “so we don’t leave all that money on the table.”

Wiley, 57, is the third generation of a theater-managing family that has run the Wheel-In since 1954, as well as the Uptown Theatre at 1120 Lawrence St. in Port Townsend.

In recent years, he has struggled with the financing of the required digital upgrade for both theaters.

Wiley converted the Uptown Theatre to digital in September through a combination of crowd-sourcing and private investments after a Kickstarter campaign had not raised enough money for the conversion.

The need to upgrade to digital to be able to use movies from distributors led to the March 2 closure of the Lincoln Theater in Port Angeles.

Converting the theater to digital projection would cost too much — about $200,000 — said Bryan Cook, manager of Sun Basin Theatres, the Wenatchee-based company that also runs Deer Park Cinema east of Port Angeles and which still owns the Lincoln.

The Lincoln went on the market May 6 for $259,000.

Other theaters on the Peninsula have made the conversion.

Wiley said theater owners have some access to 35mm prints but not enough to present a full program.

He already has removed the obsolete equipment from the drive-in’s projection booth.

Gone are the film canisters that must be spliced together for a continuous feed.

He hopes to replace them with movies on hard disk drives that include improvements in picture clarity and sound quality.

Wiley said that if he gets an indication that financing will be available, he could open within days, as the projection area is already wired for the new equipment.

If the crowdsourcing fails, Wiley will attempt to find other revenue sources.

If he is successful, then the theater could open later this summer.

In any case, either digital equipment will be installed or the theater will close for good since “we will never show any 35mm films here again,” Wiley said.

He said the digital format allows greater flexibility for private events because it provides easier access to the old films that some groups might request.

Wiley said that aside from the Wheel-In, the only drive-ins in the state are in Gorst, Whidbey Island and Shelton.

The Wheel-In draws people from Clallam, Jefferson and Kitsap counties, as well as others who drive even longer distances for the unique experience, Wiley said.

“There are people who come in all the way from Forks,” he said.

“When they get home, the sun has come up.”

He said people who come to the Wheel-In once or twice a year may see it’s full and assume that business is good, so they might not be inclined to contribute to a fundraiser.

“People don’t realize that about 60 percent of all our ticket sales go to the distributors,” he said.

Port Townsend Film Festival Executive Director Janette Force said the drive-in “is the highlight of the summer for everyone around here.

“People mark their special summer occasions with trips to the Wheel-In and wait to see movies until they are shown there,” she said.

“My family has been going to the Wheel-In for 30 years,” she added.

“I remember going to see ‘Jurassic Park’ out there while my kids were running around in sleepers.

“That was as good as life gets.”


Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or

Last modified: May 29. 2014 7:32PM
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