...As a baby boomer, I grew up in the heyday of drive-ins. I remember my parents putting my brother and me in our pajamas and toting us off to the outdoor screen in Paramus, New Jersey (now long gone), where we would usually fall asleep at some point during the program. I can’t forget the garish ads for even more garish-looking refreshments, and the fact that when you looked up a movie’s showtime in the local newspaper, chances are it would say “dusk.” I vividly recall the crackling of the always-inferior portable speakers that hung in our car window, but my strongest association with drive-in movies is the constant presence of mosquitoes. So why should I have any fondness for this once-forward-thinking, now quaint presentation of movies? Call it rose-colored nostalgia, if you like, but it was an experience like no other, a genuine slice of Americana.Let it be known: if the drive-in were to die tomorrow, I would not shed a tear. I am not a baby boomer, and I do not feel warm and fuzzy and nostalgic about what was a beneficiary of the urban sprawl period of the 50s, where cities became decentralized and America created more and more highways and thoroughfares, cutting through our neighborhoods, spreading us further and further apart, and most of all, making us more and more reliant on cars, which led to greater air pollution, the decaying of our downtowns, increased reliance on foreign oil, et cetera.
The drive-in is certainly not to blame for all of that, but it did contribute to the mythology, and dare I say, fetishization, of car culture, that "genuine slice of Americana" that Leonard Maltin talks about in the preceding quote. That said, however, I have no desire to see a legitimate movie venue die off, and so I've given the matter of how to keep drive-ins alive some thought. My conclusion: it must die...
... and be reborn. The problem with drive-ins is that they're generally located outside the cities, which means depending on the car to get there. That may not have been a big deal back in the 50s, but in recent years, the effects of urban sprawl are being deeply felt. (Also, studies have shown that there's an increasing demand for transit support on the federal level.) This is obviously a problem that goes far beyond the scope of this post, but to bring it back to drive-ins, if they are to survive, and perhaps, even thrive, there needs to be less of an emphasis on cars as a means to get there.
The drive-in must be reinvented as an outdoor movie theater, accessible via a variety of methods. It needs to be able to compensate for bad weather. It needs more to offer than a nightly picture show or two. Above all, it needs to foster the kind of community that picture shows specialize in.
- Multimodal transportation options. This is the single most important change drive-ins must make, but implementing it doesn't have to cost a fortune. How about investing in something as simple as a school bus or a van? It could make round trips from the downtown to the drive-in, perhaps stopping at the mall or other, similar locations to and from the drive-in. Charge a small fee to help pay for gas and maintenance and you're good to go. (Half price for seniors, kids 12 and under free?)
Patrons can still drive to the drive-in, of course, but there needs to be a limited amount of parking space set aside for their cars, and a fee should be charged for the privilege, one slightly higher than the bus fare. I would also encourage carpooling.
Plus, the new drive-in must do everything in their power to encourage bicycling. Provide bike racks, maybe even valet parking. Advertise in bike shops. Offer weekend discounts on admission for bikers. Encourage "bike trains" to the drive-in - basically large groups of bikers traveling together, because biking is safer when one travels in groups. The drive-in could even sell a limited amount of bike helmets, locks and chains, and night lights depending on the demand.
People in the cities need to feel that the drive-in is not so far away and can be easily reached even if one doesn't own a car.
- Pre-show entertainment. If the new drive-in will be asking people to travel out of their way for a movie, it needs to offer a little more than two shows a night. There are lots of "warm-up acts" one can put together, at relatively low cost. It can be as simple as a dance party, maybe with music to match the theme of the evening's movie; or perhaps live music on the weekends (with an extra fee to help pay for the band). It could be games and contests for the kids. Some drive-ins used to have playgrounds; that's an excellent thing to have. It could be a celebrity appearance. It could be practically anything, and it wouldn't have to cost that much (and if it does, you can always charge an extra fee). The point is to provide the patrons with an experience that would justify making the trip out beyond the downtown.
- Outdoor seating and rain protection. Aluminum or wooden bleachers could easily accommodate large crowds, and some manner of tarp can be pitched above them when rain threatens. This will cost a little more, but with the patrons out of their cars, it'll be a necessity one can't do without.
- Cultivating a unique group experience. By watching a movie in your car, surrounded by others doing the same thing, you're isolating yourself from the rest of the audience, and the net result is that you might as well be watching the movie on TV at home - and if that's the case, why bother going out at all?
By getting patrons out of those cars, not only can they re-engage in the natural audience behavior associated with movies (laughter, tears, cheers, etc.), but they can also enjoy the warmth of a summer night. Yes, audience behavior has deteriorated in recent years (texting, cell phone conversations, crying babies, etc.), but as with any indoor venue, proper monitoring by theater staff can make all the difference.
There are other suggestions I could offer, but these specifically address the drive-in experience. Upgrading to a digital projector has, regrettably, become a necessity for showing today's movies, and the fundraising drive mentioned in Maltin's original article is certainly an important part of the effort to keep drive-ins going. Still, I believe this alone is not enough. A modern drive-in must reflect the changes inherent in modern America, and the 1950s model won't do anymore.
My dream movie theater
Could variable ticket-pricing work?