Thursday, August 22, 2013

To save the drive-in, you must destroy it

...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?


  1. Very interesting post. Lawn chairs and blankets on the grass in the park sound fun, as people are already accustomed for musical concerts. Spot on with your car culture analysis, and the idea that convenient and affordable public transport will be the key to making it work.

  2. I'm glad you agree. It's something I bring up a lot, but it's true: the time I spent living in the Midwest made me more sensitive to life in "flyover country," as they sometimes call it - places big enough to be considered cities, but less dense and without the kind of public transit that we north-easterners sometimes take for granted. Places like these are what most people think of, I imagine, when they think of the heyday of the drive-in.

  3. I didn't grow up in the age of drive-ins either, but I do have some very fond memories of the rare occasions that we went to see a flick at one. Most of the drive-ins in our area ( Cleveland ) show movies at night, and run flea-markets or fresh produce markets on the weekends, to help stay in business.

    You brought up some interesting points on how to revive the "system". When drive-ins were at their peak they included many events that helped people engage with each other ( the good theatres that is )....big-name entertainers use to perform prior to the showings, and often there were trivia games/giveaways before and after the films too.

    One of the biggest drawbacks to them in my opinion is the choice of films and the high cost. This post makes me want to conceive my own drive-in theatre as well!

  4. I did a little browsing of contemporary drive-ins in preparation for this post, and it looked like they play all the current Hollywood films at prices comparable to the local multiplex. Maybe I'm missing something? (I'd be all for drive-ins that show indies and classics if they have an audience that can support them.)

    1. Hey Rich, the problem with drive-ins showing independent or classic films is that the audience for such presentation is so niche that the owners of the theater would be hard-pressed to afford the license to said movies when only a handful show up because the movies are old (many movie goers only prefer newer crap) I'm not sure what "contemporary drive-ins" you looked up, but every single one I've ever been to or heard about is always cheaper than the local multiplex. Sure the ticket price may be around the same, but you forget one key point- you get TWO movies at the drive-in for the same price the multiplex charges for one.

      Regarding the still open drive-ins around me, yes they are located outside of city limits but the days of the drive-in admission going by carload is in the past. Just like any indoor cinema, you pay your admission fee and go in, I don't think they would care if you rode up on a bicycle or walked in on foot. As a matter of fact, I've seen walk-ins carrying lawn chairs before. You don't need a special "drive-in bus" to attend the drive-in, if you know a friend or relative who likes going to the movies and drives that would be perfect otherwise get some bright lights, some hi-viz outerwear, and some common sense(for riding in the dark) and ride your bike to the movies. It's no different than people who ride their bike to the multiplex for a night showing(after 6pm), now is it? The only difference by going to the drive-in, you're with your bike at all times so there's no concern for it to be stolen when you walk out of the theatre. It's not too difficult to carry a lawn chair or just a blanket on a bike, and majority of the time the drive-in will rent portable radios or have it playing loud enough to hear if you sit near the concession stand


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