It’s the middle of July, and I’m huddled under a blanket in the backseat of my parent’s station wagon. I try to stay quiet, but I’m sweating like crazy. No — I’m not on the lam. I’m five years old, and my parents are sneaking me and my little sister into the drive-in movie theater.
That was back in the ’70s, when families were bigger. The cost of seven movie tickets — for my parents and us five kids — was expensive, so it was simply cheaper for us to pile into the car, head to the drive-in and pay one price. Besides, drive-ins had a novelty and excitement to them beyond their double features. There was a swing set park and outdoor snack-hut — not to mention you could walk around and see who else was there.
“Going to the drive-in is such a distinct memory for everyone who’s ever done it,” April Wright, producer of feature-length documentary, “Going Attractions,” said.
But like other American institutions from a bygone age, as we turned to big hair and shoulder pads in the ’80s, we also turned away from the drive-in, which is now fighting for its life. First, cineplexes at malls lured us away, then home entertainment systems replaced our moviegoing experience. Now, a growing number of home options battle for our viewing attention, courtesy of DVDs, cable television and on-demand options like Netflix and Hulu.
Drive-ins that once accounted for a quarter of the nation’s movie screens, now only represent 1.5 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times.
By the end of this year, Hollywood will stop distributing 35-millimeter film and convert to digital to save on the cost of buying and shipping thousands of heavy reels. It costs about $1,500 to print one celluloid copy and ship it in a heavy metal canister, compared to a mere $150 for a digital version on a hard drive. In fact, over the next few years, that will drop to nearly zero as studios send them out via satellite.
Multiply that by 4,000 copies — one for each movie on each screen in each multiplex around the country — and those savings quickly add up. The transformation is a critical, but large, cost for theaters, so venues across the country will need modernize, which most indoor cineplexes have done, or fade-to-black. Drive-ins, often challenged by rising property prices and changing viewing tastes, now face their biggest challenge.
While large chains often secure financing to make the technological leap, according to John Vincent, a spokesman for the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, only 150 drive-ins have made the switch, and the remaining 210 venues in the U.S. must decide whether to pay from $75,000 to $100,000 per projector to digitally overhaul their operations. By some estimates, a quarter of these mom-and-pop operations, which tend to be family-owned labors of love instead of cash cows, won’t be able to afford the upgrade, and must shut down operations by next spring.
“We have challenges that other movie theaters don’t,” Vincent told Bloomberg. “We have fewer screens and can only show one or two movies a night. Now we have to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to stay in business.”
Drive-in culture is inextricably entwined with car culture, so it makes sense that Honda is stepping up to help. The automaker, through its “Project Drive-In” campaign, showcased venues to let the public vote on which five locations will be given Christie Digital Systems projectors to stay afloat.
Due to the high emotional response, which underscored an enthusiasm to keep the spirit of the drive-in alive, Honda said it plans to award four more systems to theaters.
According to Rolling Stone, some drive-ins, like the Harvest Moon theater in Gibson City, Ill., turned to Kickstarter to crowdsource its funding. It didn’t have much luck, but it still managed to raise enough money through its own fundraising website, along with the help of two kids, who frequented the drive-in selling $350 worth of lemonade, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Similarly, theaters are looking to Facebook to save their operations. For example, the McHenry Outdoor Theater, outside Chicago, created a Facebook page that quickly garnered over 12,000 likes. Meanwhile, The Fairlee Drive-in and Motel in Vermont — where you can watch from a bed as well as a car — created a webpage and raised $16,000 in donations. The Midway Drive-In in Sterling, Ill., which wasn’t selected in Honda’s first round of winners, also hopes to turn to the Internet to raise enough money to convert to digital.
“Unfortunately, it has been years since I’ve gone to the Midway,” Tina, a supporter for the Midway Drive-In, told me. “But I’m a firm believer in keeping things of this nature alive in our communities — not only for us ‘old timers’ but for all who embrace the techno-world and still long for the ‘good old days’ when life was simpler.”
Our changing entertainment habits may revive the popularity of drive-ins at a time when the movie business itself is at a crossroads. Audiences increasingly go online for their movie fix, and Hollywood has yet to offer a compelling answer for that segment. Insiders often believe studio executives are lost as entertainment transitions into the digital era.
Many believe moviegoing will go the way of Broadway and become an increasingly marquee, “premium” experience. The popularity of 3-D and IMAX showings show a willingness to boost picture and projection technology, but other experiments — like broadcasting one-time premium events like concerts — prove they’re also testing ways to “upgrade” the experience.
“What you’re going to end up with is fewer theaters and bigger theaters with a lot of nice things, George Lucas told Fast Company. “Going to the movies will cost $50, maybe $100, maybe $150. The movies will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does, and that’s going to be what we call the movie business.”
The golden age of the silver screen may be fading. In 2011, attendance at indoor theaters hit a 25-year low, with young audiences down 40 percent since 2002, according to Goldman Sachs. By contrast, IMAX doubled its number of screens since 2009, and expects to double again by 2015.
“Eventually there’s going to be a price variance where you’ll pay $25 to see the next Iron Man and probably only have to pay $7 to see Lincoln,” Stephen Spielberg once predicted. “There’s going to be that in our future as well.”
Will a technologically souped-up drive-in be the outdoor cousin to IMAX? Maybe. Consumers want to share their experience, where they can plug in and communicate with others. Audiences want to check out the online cast list in real-time and answer questions like, “What other movie was that bad guy in?” Meanwhile, young viewers often tweet and talk to friends while movies play in the background.
When Disney re-released “The Little Mermaid” earlier this month, it encouraged moviegoers in special screenings to bring iPad to play games to take part with fellow audience members in singalongs during the film. The move — a bet on “second screen live” — was a novel way to offer a unique experience and get consumers back in theaters.
“This is a special event. We are inviting people to break the rules,” Dave Hollis, Disney’s head of theatrical distribution, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a departure from the traditional moviegoing experience. We wanted to inject a different kind of life into it.”
The second screen is breaking the rules in traditional theaters, but drive-ins are uniquely positioned to capitalize on shifting entertainment trends, and with a few improvements, they may move from a blast from the past to an exciting part of the future.
By using car stereos for sound, drive-ins give you a private space to relax in — so you can roll up the windows, crank up the volume and enjoy the film under the darkness of the stars. They can also offer Wi-Fi, power outlets and USB ports for gadget use during the film — especially in open, grassy spaces to attract picnickers who want a more social experience.
Forty-something Tina told me her daughter and friends circle back to drive-ins for those very reasons. “It is cheaper for them to see two movies for the price of one, and they don’t feel so crowded and forced to deal with people talking through the movie,” she said. “There is a growing number of young people who truly want to slow down on the weekends to regroup after a long week and be with their friends.”
Some owners may want to mix the old and new, as well, and keep that antiquated 35-millimeter projector for occasional airings of classics and independents. Hosting big events — like the Midway Drive-In’s celebrity guest appearances and flashback weekend — is another unique way to entertain old-time fans and attract new ones.
The transition to digital is the latest chapter of a beloved American tradition, which, according to the Washington Post, began 80 years ago this June, when film fan Richard Hollingshead Jr. placed a five-year-old Kodak projector atop his car, facing a sheet strung along trees on his New Jersey driveway. He patented the idea, and with an affordable admission price of $1 per car, the idea took off, smuggling countless numbers of children into drive-ins.
While attendance at drive-ins have declined, they’re still holding on and fighting, offering unparalleled cinematic backdrops in movies like “Grease,” “The Outsiders” and “Back to the Future.” And the affection and nostalgia drive-ins generate is sparking renewed interest to save the experience with technological advances, allowing them to continue to build communities and memories for the digital era. ♦