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Hilltop Drive-in finds film

Family-owned institution finds distributor to fill its projector

Stephen Huba PREPARATION — Hilltop Drive-In Theater owner Katie Beaver gets ready to sweep the concession floor on Thursday. The historic drive-in opens tonight, despite the absence of digital technology.

CHESTER — For all those drive-in movie fans who’ve been wondering about the Hilltop Drive-In Theater, your wait is over.

The Hancock County institution, although closed most of the summer, is reopening today now that the owner has found a booking agent that has access to 35 mm films.

“It’s been a rough road,” said Katherine “Katie” Beaver, who took over ownership from her father, Joe Danko, in 2014.

Within 24 hours of announcing the reopening on Facebook, the historic drive-in had received more than a thousand “likes” and 145 comments. More than 1,700 people shared the Facebook post with others.

The Hilltop is opening its season, albeit late, with the new “Ghostbusters” movie and “Suicide Squad,” both of which are still considered first-run movies, Beaver said. The movies start at dusk today, Saturday and Sunday.

“I’m hoping to stay open at least 10 weekends, weather permitting,” Beaver said. “If we have a mild winter, who knows?”

In May, Beaver said she would not be able to open until she had acquired a digital movie projector. Hollywood movie studios announced in 2013 they were eliminating 35mm film and going exclusively to a digital format, making the Hilltop’s 70-year-old film projectors obsolete.

The drive-in’s ownership first raised the prospect of a digital transition in 2013 but was able to continue with 35 mm film through the end of the 2015 season. Having reached the point of no return, Beaver found a man in Florida who was willing to sell her a new projector for $70,000.

She held several fundraisers in the spring in the hopes of raising $10,000 for a down payment and financing the rest. But the financing fell through at the last minute, scuttling the deal.

Then Beaver found a booking agent in Cincinnati who informed her that 35 mm movies were still available from some of the major distributors. She has since signed contracts with Sony, Universal, Paramount and Warner Brothers.

“It got to the point where I didn’t care — because I wanted to open and I wanted to get things moving again,” she said. “I don’t want people to forget that I’m here.”

Beaver still hopes to go digital sometime in the future.

Open since 1950, the Hilltop Drive-In has been under the same family ownership since Joe Danko bought it in 1988. Danko passed the ownership on to his daughter and son-in-law, Katie and Harry Beaver, of Rogers, Ohio, in 2014.

Beaver said it is her intention to keep the Hilltop open, mainly because there is still a demand for the things a drive-in theater provides — things like reasonable ticket prices, first-run movies, a family-friendly atmosphere and good customer service.

The seemingly little things, like politeness, also make a difference, she said.

Beaver even insists on proper grammar from her concession employees. “It’s not ‘Can I help you?” it’s ‘May I help you?’” she said. “Don’t say, ‘Is that all?’ Say ‘Is there anything else?'”

The theater, located off Veterans Boulevard just south of Chester, charges $8 for patrons 12 and older and $3.50 for children 6-11. Children under 6 are free. The box office opens at 7:30 p.m.

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)

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