The Second Coming of the Drive-In
Something magical occurred while I was viewing the movie Contact years ago at a Drive-In theater. As I watched a scene in which the camera pans up to star-filled space, the edges of the screen melted away, merging into the background of the actual crystal-clear starry night sky of Vermont. In that moment, the entire heavens became my own personal big screen, a theater of truly epic proportions.
That word “magical” gets used a lot when talking about Drive-Ins—and for very good reason. “There’s something magical about sitting under the stars on a pretty night watching a movie,” says Glenn Solomon, owner of Coyote Drive-In in Ft. Worth, Texas, one of the nation’s premier venues.
Seeing movies with a hundred other people in the dark in a theater, “you know you are not alone, it’s a communal experience you can’t get on Netflix,” says Bill Phillips. The Dartmouth professor of screenwriting has his own professional credits, including a film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror bestseller Christine, with a very prominent scene set at a Drive-In. “But the Drive-In is all that squared. It takes the experience to another level. It’s magical.”
Supernatural or not, what once was a fading movie venue is enjoying a renaissance in popularity as upscale services, new diversions, improved equipment and the need to social distance during a pandemic are wooing the public.
The charms of film watching while in a crowd, but still in the seclusion of a car, are attracting a new generation of customers. And for those old enough to remember their heyday, Drive-Ins offer a comforting nostalgia: the clichés of toddlers arriving in their pajamas, teenagers necking in back seats and pranksters trying to beat the cost of admission by hiding in the trunk—even the corny ads with animated snacks and cold drinks exhorting patrons to visit the snack bar at intermission.
Another word that comes up often in regard to Drive-Ins is “friendly.” As in family friendly, dog friendly, budget friendly, adult-beverage friendly and, rarest example of all these days, cigar friendly.
“If you go to a regular movie theater, you only go to see the movie,” says John Stefanopoulos, a co-owner of Four Brothers Drive-In in New York’s Hudson Valley, one of the newest next-generation “hipster” takes on the genre. “But at the Drive-In you create and enjoy your own special experience and make a night of it. It’s an escape: parents can bring an infant and not worry about them crying. You can’t do that at a theater.” The brothers’ Drive-In also encourages pets and provides a dog park. “You can smoke around our firepit,” he adds. “Or in your vehicle.”
“You get to bring your home here with you,” says Josh Frank, who owns the very hip Blue Starlite “micro” Drive-Ins, which accommodate just eight to 60 cars per screen. At the venues in Austin and suburban Round Rock, Texas, you can even eat like you’re home. “We sell food, but we encourage you to bring your own from home or a restaurant. You can tailor your own perfect experience in a way you just can’t indoors.”
Thomas Edison changed sight and sound entertainment forever with the first phonograph and movie camera, both invented in New Jersey. So, it is fitting that the Drive-In debuted in the Garden State, on June 6, 1933. According to the Smithsonian magazine, auto parts salesman Richard Hollingshead grasped the potential audience of a nation newly obsessed with the freedom offered by cars and road trips. He began by screening movies on a sheet in his backyard and, after five years of tinkering, devised the still-popular ramp system that provides parking at different heights for optimal viewing.
Twenty-five years after he opened his full-scale facility in Camden, charging a quarter for admission, the number of Drive-In theaters in the nation peaked at just more than 4,000. A handful of other countries have replicated the concept in a smattering of locations, but the Drive-In has always been an almost exclusively American concept, and an entrenched part of classic Americana.
Since the high-water mark of 1958, the Drive-In has been in steady decline, often the victim of soaring property values. Today, just over 300 remain in business. Nevertheless, because of multiplex facilities, the number of screens is nearly double that. And theaters’ following is devoted.
“People don’t realize how popular Drive-Ins still are,” says Solomon, a third-generation owner whose father built more than a hundred Drive-Ins across the South after World War II. “The ones that still stand are mostly thriving successes, and we are always very, very busy.” Without counting kids under four who get in for free, he says his three-screen Coyote Drive-In sells 250–350,000 tickets annually.
According to the industry’s trade group, the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), Drive-Ins are in every state but Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, Louisiana and Delaware. New York and Pennsylvania have the most with 28 theaters each (49 and 44 screens, respectively). Several other states, including California, Texas, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee, are in double digits. In the 21st century, the numbers have stabilized, and after years of little else but closures, brand new Drive-Ins have begun to appear, along with many renovations of long-shuttered sites.
UDITOA says just over 100 new or reopened theaters have debuted since the 1990s, and several wildly popular modern examples, including Four Brothers and Coyote, have opened in the past decade.
In addition, there are “permanently temporary” recurring venues, such as the “Rolling Roadshow” put on by pioneering food-and-drink-centric, brick-and-mortar movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. Its famous annual screening of Jaws has patrons floating on inner tubes on a Texas lake. Austin’s Blue Starlite runs an annual summer seasonal satellite in Colorado.
The same retro-hipster aesthetic that brought back vinyl as a revived musical format fuels the nascent resurgence by drawing on nostalgia and Americana, something the Drive-In offers in spades. But the experience has increasingly been combined with contemporary touches and extras, from gourmet, ethnic and natural foods to craft beer and wine bars to on-site camping or lodging in restored Airstream trailers. Because they otherwise wouldn’t open until dusk, several leverage their facilities with pre-movie entertainment: from flea markets to go-kart tracks to mini golf. More than a few strive for a carnival atmosphere, including face painters, balloon artists, arcades and live music.
While most of the nation’s successful and iconic theaters are more than half a century old, even those seemingly frozen in time have quietly modernized. Studios long distributed movies on actual film, but today, those bulky reels have vanished, and the oldest remaining Drive-Ins have made the switch to digital. They have also replaced traditional car-side wired speakers with FM transmitters, so you listen through your car radio. Some even offer Bluetooth for digital devices—including high-end headphones.
The result is crystal-clear video and audio that is far better than decades ago. For cinephiles, it is worth noting that the smallest Drive-In screens are much bigger than the largest indoor ones. And a well-equipped car has a multi-speaker sound system that will out perform many mall multiplexes.
For Steve Jermanok, who for 45 years has frequented Cape Cod’s Wellfleet Drive-In, with its wafting sea air, size is a wow factor: “If you have not been to the Drive-In you cannot possibly imagine how big the screen is. It’s just huge.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has been serendipity for the industry. In 2012, a Bloomberg news headline read: “U.S. Drive-In Theaters Face Demise Without Funds for Digital.” Eight years later, during the midst of the pandemic, Bloomberg’s headline was “Drive-In Theaters are Jammed with Moviegoers Escaping Lockdown.” Business reporter Thomas Black noted that “Never since their 1950s heyday have Drive-In theaters seemed more attractive.”
The recent pop-ups have been jammed, long established theaters have had to turn customers away, and all three screens at the large Coyote sold out on one of the first Friday nights after reopening. Theater owners saw customers who hadn’t been to a Drive-In for 30 or 40 years bringing their kids for the first time and enjoying it so much they planned to make it a regular thing.
Drive-Ins have reopened well before regular theaters in almost all states. Even when both are available, many patrons opt for the safety of the great outdoors or seclusion of their own cars. Newcomers seeking to avoid infection will undoubtedly be won over by the same fun factor that keeps entrenched fans loyal. Dozens of pop-up Drive-Ins have opened around the country, even in states with no theaters. Country music star Alan Jackson borrowed the format for his concerts. It’s been so popular that plans have even been floated to turn New York’s Yankee Stadium into a summer pop-up Drive-In during the absence of baseball.
“Right now, we are the only movies open in Austin,” Josh Frank reported in June. “When they reopen, of course some people will go back inside, but others will keep coming to the Drive-In because they feel safe and comfortable. The funny thing is that there’s very little difference between normal Blue Starlite and pandemic Blue Starlite.”
Every Drive-In has different rules, but many, even those with concessions, welcome outside food and drink, and most allow you to set up camp by your car. “The new fashion,” says Phillips, “is to take a pick-up truck, back in and set up in the bed, outside but self-contained.” At Four Brothers you can watch from the patio of its full-service Italian restaurant while enjoying cocktails, hit the food, wine and beer truck, have car hop service delivered to your vehicle through an app, or even rent the Hotel Caravana, a single tricked-out Airstream trailer that sleeps four and has a private viewing patio with hot tub—and room service.
My local is the Fairlee Drive-In Theater & Motel in Vermont, which claims to be one of only three Drive-Ins in the nation with an onsite motel. Each room has a patio from which you can view the film. Should you overindulge, you don’t have to drive home. A perfect example of an updated classic, Fairlee added expensive new updates in the ’90s (a new wind- and weather-proof screen) and the 2000s (a digital projector). Yet the feel of the place is still very much as it was when it opened in 1950. That said, in typical Vermont fashion, the oversized burgers, served at a snack stand straight out of American Graffiti, feature naturally raised Black Angus beef from the current owner’s nearby farm. The pints of ice cream come from in-state producer Ben & Jerry’s. Local and artisanal food is becoming a vital part of the experience with such 1950s fare as cotton candy and chili dogs.
Because they can only show movies after dark, the tradition at many Drive-Ins has long been a single nightly admission that includes a double feature. In many cases, the first is kid’s fare and the second more mainstream, though some places stick to all family-friendly, and others emphasize favorites from the past. Jaws, Grease and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial are staples, as well as the Star Wars movies and much of the sci-fi genre, which seems to play even better under the night sky.
“Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goonies—those are the Drive-In revival blockbusters,” says Frank. Solomon related the story of a customer who saw that the Coyote Drive-In was airing Goonies, and brought her kids specifically because she had originally seen the movie at a Drive-In and wanted them to experience it their first time that way. “As a father, I also want my kids to experience the things I did growing up—the Drive-In is like going fishing.”
While Drive-Ins have been known for showing B-movies and flicks that have been long on the circuit, many now show first-run movies at the same time that they are in theaters. West Wind Drive-Ins, the largest Drive-In theater chain in the world, with seven locations across California, Arizona and Nevada, proudly shows first-run, new releases at all its venues.
What just about all the Drive-Ins do have in common, whether they have food trucks and wine bars or simple hot dog stands, is low prices. Tickets are almost always cheaper than the price conventional theaters get for just one movie. Kids tickets are heavily discounted or free.
Also for free is the atmosphere. People throw footballs or frisbees, walk dogs and light up stogies. And because the entire outing can stretch five hours—more if you come early for live music, mini-golf or face painting—a longstanding American Drive-In tradition is for kids to pass out in the back seat and get carried to bed after returning home. “As a parent, it’s a great opportunity to do something special with the kids, and if they fall asleep in the backseat it doesn’t matter,” says screenwriter Phillips. “I still remember getting carried into the house by my father after falling asleep, and sometimes I would just pretend to be asleep.”
Four Brothers founder Stefanopoulos had never been to a Drive-In movie when he decided to open his own theater seven years ago. But he had ample experience in the family hospitality business, operating restaurants and lodging, and took inspiration from vacationing as a child in Greece, where beach going often included another dimension of food and music.
“It’s not just about getting in the water. It’s a more emotional experience and we thought we could bring that to the movies,” he says. “Yes, we’re showing movies, but that is a vehicle for bringing people together and giving everyone, kids and adults, something fun to do.” Four Brothers may be putting new spins on the Drive-In, but it remains a part of Americana that can still be enjoyed.