The Disappearing Drive-In
Drive-In theaters are a dying breed, but outdoor movies thrive.
Web2Carz Staff Writer
Published: July 2nd, 2012
It is estimated that by next June, fewer than 300 drive-in theaters will be operating
othing screams “Americana” louder than drive-in movie theaters. They are in the DNA of our popular culture, a car-movie double helix along with “Surfin' Safari” and the atomic bomb. Ask any Baby Boomer about a drive in, and you'll most likely be assaulted with the kind of nostalgia that seems to imply something greater than the actual movie itself or a snapshot into another era invariably lost on those of us who grew up in the shadow of Blockbuster and the DVD player.
Your father won’t remember what was playing during that Fourth of July weekend in '54, when his parents took the family to the Tibbs Drive-in in Michigan City, Indiana, but he'll most likely tell you with a twinkle in his eye that it was from a '52 Nash Rambler, four-door Cross Country Wagon or a '53 Plymouth where he watched the film.
By their peak in the late '60s, drive-ins numbered around 4,000, operating from Bangor all the way to Bakersfield. Yet, on the eve of this perennial institution's 80th birthday, it is estimated that by next June, fewer than 300 theaters will be operating, and like the Nash Rambler, they'll eventually fade into modern memory.
It’s no surprise that technology has been the prime culprit in the decline of drive-in theaters. The advent of home video, VHS, and ultimately DVD rentals have dramatically affected the patronage since the late '70s. Real estate too has been a factor; as the acreages of properties theaters stood on became valuable, theater owners were undoubtedly lured by the promise of millions for land they had only paid thousands to buy. And, for those mom-and-pop-owned Midwestern drive-ins projecting films only in the summer months, land developers' big payouts have been impossible to refuse.
Ironically enough, Hollywood is currently behind the most costly dilemma facing the few drive-ins left standing. Studios have decided that 2013 will be the year they will stop distributing 35 MM prints and force theaters to upgrade to digital. Converting to digital can cost 80 to 100 thousand dollars per screen, an insurmountable fortune to some theatre owners.
And yet, drive-ins won't seem to go away. Some theater owners have in fact raised the necessary funds to convert to digital and a growing movement, including several websites devoted exclusively to preserving the rich history of drive-ins has arisen. Most notably, www.driveinmovie.com is the most comprehensive listing of existing drive-ins on the web dedicated to the historical preservation and promotion of these venues. The site contains a list of 300 plus operating theaters in the US as well as thousands of "dark" theaters no longer in existence.
Among this summer’s top five drive-ins, open rain or shine are: West Chicago’s Cascade Drive-In, Delsea Drive-In located in Vineland, NJ, City of Commerce, CA’s 88 Drive-In Theatre, the Grandview Drive-In Movie Theater in Grandview, IA, and Dearborn, MI’s own Ford Drive In. And, while traditional drive-in theaters fight for their lives, the desire to watch movies under the stars will never go away.
The last ten years have given rise to a do-it-yourself guerrilla movement of mobile digital projectionists screening films outdoors on warehouse walls, in parks, and in parking lots. For those still inclined to enjoying movies al fresco and not necessarily in cars, scores of outdoor film series and festivals screening classic Hollywood films of yesteryear. Some notable series include: 2012 Bryant Park Movie Series-movies under the stars in NYC, Washington, DC's NoMa Summer Screen, The Chicago Outdoor Film Festival in Grant Park, and Cinespia at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.