Saturday, August 18, 2012

Drive-in Theatres: The Open Air Cinema Experience

You might be interested in this article if...

-You’re a Movie Buff that enjoys the retro feel of a drive-in
-You saw movies at the drive-in when you were a kid
-You actually want to go see a movie at a drive-in

The drive-in theatre was an icon of the 1960s. Growing in popularity along with the automobile, it combined the excitement of a film with the comfort, convenience, and intimacy of the auto. Drive-ins provided an interesting and dynamic alternative to the cinema – honestly, there are just so many things you can experience at a drive-in that you can’t in a cinema. Furthermore, drive-ins were certainly more social environments for movie watching than cinemas.

Invented by Richard Hollingshead, Jr. to combine his passions for film and autos, the first prototype was set up in Richard’s own driveway and backyard. The idea was to provide an open air theatre that film goers could enjoy from the comfort of their own cars. Although the design was simple – a projector shining on a sheet nailed between two trees and a radio behind the sheet to provide audio – it worked, and provided Richard with the proof of concept that inspired him to bring his idea to life for the rest of the world.  In 1933 Richard opened the world’s first Drive-in Theatre along Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey. The Drive-in used inclined aisles that allowed cars to easily see the 60 ft screen over those parked in front of them, and also allowed cars to drive along the aisle without obstructing anyone’s view.

Originally audio was provided by large speakers that held to the sides of the screen. These weren’t ideal and would deafen the front row while the back row would have trouble hearing what the actors said. In response to this RCA would design an in-car speaker that hooked onto the car door that provided a consistent audio experience for the whole audience. Still, this would only allow audio in mono and would damage cars if the driver forgot to remove them before leaving the lot. Modern drive-ins provide audio through short range FM radio to utilize the impressive sound systems of modern vehicles.

An in-car speaker hanging from its post at a vacant drive-in

And like any other kind of theatre, drive-ins netted most of their income from concessions, and although it was easy to sneak in outside food - and who doesn’t? – most drive-ins did see lots of profit from selling quickly prepared, novelty foods. Hotdogs, ice cream, french fries, soft drinks, pizza, popcorn and burgers were all available to enjoy during the movie, but were often bought during the intermission between films. Moreover, ads would often run during intermission that encouraged snacking. Even today, some modern drive-ins continue to run these ads and have retro 50s diner style snack bars to attract lucrative business.

The real genius of the Drive-in was in its privacy. By watching the movie from one’s own car, one effectively had a private booth. This meant that viewers didn’t need to consider theatre etiquette while watching the movie. For instance, smokers wouldn’t need to worry about bothering others while they enjoyed their fags with the movie, talking wouldn’t bother anyone outside your car, and you could sneak anything into the movie from a friend in your trunk, to a mini fridge full of outside food in the back of your van. The privacy was especially valuable to young teens that would use it to drink, smoke, and make out without their parents being the wiser. Indeed, the media would label drive-ins as “passion pits” and placed them second only to “make out point” - where the car provided yet another comforting shield of privacy – as a place for teenaged sexual activity. But at the end of the day, it was just another rite of passage for teens about to experience independence and freedom for the first time, thanks to the automobile.  

But just because people could stay cooped up in their car didn’t mean they always did. As a matter of fact The Mustang Drive-in offers a play ground for kids to play on before the movie starts, and many parents and children socialize prior to the movie. Teenagers also often manage to pull themselves away from booze, pot, and sex long enough to pull out some lawn chairs and enjoy the movie with their closest friends. Truly, drive-ins were more social events than the quiet and rigid affairs at any Multiplex, and it’s easy to see how despite controversies they can promote a stronger community and provide patrons with timeless memories.

Drive-in theatres, and other drive-in facilities like banks and diners, would see a peak in popularity from 1950-1960 and in 1958 there were over 4000 drive-in theatres operating in the US. Everybody loved them, and their popularity would be echoed on through time in both literature and film as an ideal atmosphere for characters living in the 50s-60s.

                     The famous drive-in scene from the movie Grease

Despite being so well loved, the drive-in would only remain in novelty and nostalgia. Drive-ins would become obsolete as media evolved and technology brought consumers cable TV and VCRs to enjoy movies from home with. Exacerbating the problems were, failures to get new releases to screen on time, rising property tax, and retiring owners. Some drive-ins attempted to attract more business with exploit movies and in some cases even by showing adult content at less family friendly hours. Still it was hard to beat home entertainment systems and as a result, drive-in theatres are rare today.

According to a 2006 survey there are only 651 screens and 398 theatres left in business in the US.  Many will be closing down in the future, and few will be opening to take their place. Hull’s Drive-in of Lexington Virginia has gone non-profit in order to stay in business, and is supported by a group called Hull’s Angels. Still, many others close down and turned into cheap business venues like flea market grounds, storage depots, or even parking lots and scrap yard in worst cases. As an illustration, the Fort Lauderdale SwapShop is the world’s largest drive-in and also doubles as the world’s largest flea market.

Filling the void left by the absence of drive-ins by using the same personal entertainment technology that killed them, guerrilladrive-ins are hosted by groups of film buffs that crave the retro experience the drive-in offered. These drive-ins are more like get-togethers with friends or clubs that care about movies, and only require a multimedia projector, FM transmitter, DVD player, and a large flat surface like a warehouse, barn or simply a large wall to watch the film on. Although not as charming as an authentic drive-in, there is much to be said about the great memories guerrilla drive-ins create as well as the extremely flexible movie selection which often features independent, foreign, or niche movies.

Guerilla Drive-in at a Warehouse

Still, drive-ins are finding ways to survive. In London, Pseudo-drive-ins like Volvo’s Urban Starlite Drive-in don’t even require a car as new Volvos are already parked in the lot for guests to enjoy the movie in. At intermission orders are taken from roller skating waitresses and brought to your car from a retro styled diner. On the more conservative side, locations like those owned by Premier Operating in Ontario Canada are actually still going strong. With locations in Oakville (The 5 Drive-in), Hamilton (The Starlite), and Smiths Falls (Smiths Falls Drive-in) all being popularly received by consumers in their areas, it’s likely that these drive-ins will continue to attract nostalgic customers.

1 comment:

  1. Drive-in theatres are living proof that auto and movies can always go together. There are two advantages in going to this kind of event. One, people get to see a good movie. Two, they can appreciate awesome vehicles while eating some popcorn.[Kerstin Shed]