Are drive-in theaters driving off into the sunset?

Drive-in movie theaters recall a simpler time in American history. At peak popularity, over 4,000 drive-ins across the U.S. introduced movie lovers to classic films, like On the Waterfront, It Happened One Night, and The Sound of Music. But that heyday – along with malt shops, hula-hoops, and gasoline under $1 a gallon – has passed, perhaps forever. Although more than 350 drive-ins still operate in the U.S., the digital film projection revolution threatens these holdouts. By the end of this year, many of the remaining drive-ins will likely be gone.

The first drive-in in the United States opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, just as “talkies” hit the mainstream. A year later, a second drive-in opened on the corner of Pico and Westwood in Los Angeles – just blocks from where UCLA would later train prestigious filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola.

Drive-ins kicked into high gear in the 1940s and 1950s, as America grew infatuated with “car culture.” Kids considered it fun and cool to hang out in their cars, even when they weren’t driving. Popular media catalogued this obsession with All Things Auto in songs like the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe and James Dean’s classic film, Rebel Without a Cause.

But our love affair with the car didn’t last forever.

By the 1980s, the rise of shopping malls and multiplexes had crippled the drive-in business. Some drive-ins survived by playing up the nostalgia angle. But thrifty/creative business models can only take you so far. In the 1950s, 25% of movie theaters were drive-ins. Today, that number stands at just 1.5%, and many drive-in operators struggle to stay profitable. For one thing, drive-ins in cold climates must shut down during the winter. But the real chill is coming from Hollywood’s obsession with digital projection. (A digital projector plays digital movies received via hard drive, DVD, the Internet, or satellite transmission, while an old-school mechanical 35 millimeter projector uses old-school reels of film.)

According to IHS screen digest, the number of digital screens globally has ballooned over the past seven years. In 2006, fewer than 5% of screens had been outfitted for the digital age. Today, more than 70% of screens are equipped.

By the end of 2013, Hollywood will no longer distribute 35 millimeter films. Most “hard top” theaters have already made the switch to digital. But only 10% of drive-ins have done so. The costs of conversion are steep. Digital projectors cost $70,000 or more per screen, and drive-ins must also swallow extra retrofitting costs.

Independent theater owners have tried fundraising to buy digital projectors and stay in the game. But their results have been decidedly mixed. Consider the plight of Jeff Kohlberg, a 66 year-old Chicago drive-in owner, who grew up working at his father’s drive-in. He needed $100,000 to convert his theatre (the Cascade) for the digital age. He tried fundraising but eventually paid for the upgrade out of pocket. He told the Chicago Tribune, “I could operate that theater if I could just break even and survive… I couldn’t do anything else. I haven’t done anything else. This is in our blood.”

Not every story has a happy ending. Another proprietor, Gerry Herringer in Minnesota, announced that he’s giving up the fight and selling his property to Walmart.

Some companies are taking up the gauntlet and fighting for the preservation of the art form. Honda recently sponsored Project Drive-in, a competition to “preserve [drive-in] theaters by supplying drive-ins with digital projectors in an effort to maintain that link between cars and the movies.”

All in all, though, the situation is a bit ironic. Our collective fetish for digital technology, which began in full force in the early 2000s, was driven by our fascination with 3D technology. 3D movies and drive-ins both enjoyed popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. But now the revival of one “oldie but goodie” technology (3D movies) is driving the extinction of another (drive-ins).

The Digital Age has its delights, but it’s sad to see the end of this era of American culture. Enjoy the drive-in experience while you can, and consider donating to indie theaters to help them raise funds to upgrade their projectors. With help from patrons and a dash of luck, maybe we can hold off on writing “Fade Out” on the drive-in era for a few more years.

Honda launches efforts to save some drive-in theaters, Jerry Hirsch, August 12, 2013, Los Angeles Times,
Digital projection has drive-in movie theaters reeling, Laura J. Nelson, January 19, 2013, Los Angeles Times
Last reel: The death of the drive-in cinema?, Kim Gittleson, August 14, 2013 BBC News,
Surviving drive-ins scramble to keep sun from setting on 80-year-old tradition, Ted Gregory, May 04, 2013, Chicago Tribune

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