Articles & Notes, Talks & Interviews — September 5, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Drive-in theaters: A dying breed that’s still around

Drive-in theater is an eluding thing, a dying breed. Some people have experienced it themselves. Others only read about them, or saw them in the movies.

According to United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, there are under 500 such theaters left in the world today. 368 of them are in the United States, and just over 50 in Canada.

The peak of Drive-ins came in the 50s, when there were around 4000-5000 such theaters in the U.S. alone.

The first drive-ins first appeared in the 1930’s. Richard Hollingshead Jr., father of the drive-in movie theater, capitalized on the success of the drive-in restaurant, extending the in-your-car-convenience to include the silver screen. He patented the idea three years after the idea’s conception. The first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey in June 1933.

After that an idea of having a place where people could park their cars, enjoy a meal, and watch a movie outdoors was born.

Around 1950 at the height of their popularity, there were about 3,775 drive-ins in the U.S. As of December 1997, only 815 screens remained.

While today, the number of working drive-in theaters has dropped significantly, some were actually re-opened since the early 90’s.

In the 1960’s, the solidification of daylight saving time contributed to the drive-in’s downfall, forcing later starting times.

Rapid real estate development also contributed to the downfall. Drive-ins can occupy 30 acres or more, and originally were often built on low-value farmland. But urban sprawl eventually caught up, with shopping mall builders in particular buying and razing the outdoor theaters.

Biggest problem for drive-in theaters

If you’ve never been in a drive-in theater, but wonder how what kind of movies they show, then, for example, you might be surprised that even today, some drive-ins show old movies.

“On our last weekend of the season, we do what we call Slashfest, as we try to show the viewers some of the old horror movies,” owner of the “Skyview” Drive In theater Steve Bloomer told BZFilm via email.

He did not specify what horror movies were shown at the last Slashfest festival.

The future of drive-in theaters are somewhat hard to predict – there are people who claim they’re already dead despite that they still operate around the world, others believe they will continue to be around.

The audience also changes, so the drive-ins have to adjust to that. Bloomer said he’s not worried much about the audience leaving.

“Our audience is made up of families with young children so we don’t worry about the generations that grew up in drive-ins going away,” he said.

He also disclosed the biggest problem that the drive-in theaters are facing today.

“The biggest problem for the survival of a lot of drive ins is the forced conversion to digital projection,” Bloomer explained.

“There are a lot of mom & pop drive ins that are living on a shoestring that won’t be able to afford the cost of this conversion. They will just close up,” he added.

A few more years, and it is quite possible that many of the drive-in theaters just might close, unable to adjust to the changing times of technology.

“It would not surprise me, if 25 percent of existing drive-ins are gone in a couple of years,” Bloomer concluded.

It can be assumed that the downfall of the drive-in era has become slower, yet it still continues. Through the years, drive-ins received very hard punches from VHS, CDs, DVDs, and even the portable movie screens.

Many people today actually still visit drive-ins, for various reasons. Those who lived to see their rise, and those who missed it completely.

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