Friday, November 7, 2014

Drive-In Delight

The drive-in movie theater screened its first film (Wives Beware) on June 3rd, 1933. Families were tempted into attending with the advertising line, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are!" However, attendance has significantly declined throughout the past eighty years of its existence. With the drive in being an experience like any other, it could seem mysterious as to why they've almost reached extinction. The rise of television is one plausible excuse for the slow death in drive in interest and there are some cons that even I sometimes pretend to avoid in the whole experience itself. We'll cover it all!

     I was exposed to the glory of all that is drive-in the first time I watched Grease. I was blown away and thought they were a thing of the past until my pops told me that we had one in our town. That weekend, the entire family and I were pulling up to the screening of Lilo and Stitch and Iron Man. It was a hot summers night, and all of the other kids were getting all of their excitement out on the big field in front of the screen. I remember joining in the rambunctious behavior but being distracted by the overwhelming structure that was our movie screen for the evening.

     Our van was parked backwards in a large sandy lot, blankets sprawled amongst pillows on the flattened backseat. It didn't take long for my impatience to boil over. By dusk it took every molecule of power to prevent my whining and then, trailers for other films began rolling. We could see them, but not a sound emerged from the speakers of our car or the little radio provided in our parking space. It took a bit of fiddling to correct the station for the theater to our car, and even when it did, white noise crackled along with it. The picture wasn't impressive by any means. At the age of 7 I could tell that the light pollution from our town and surrounding neighborhood was messing up the works. Not to that precise explanation by any means, just that even in the middle of the night it was "too light out for the movie." The funniest part was that it was still a delightful time for the five of us. All of us huddled in a cuddle puddle, laughing at the punchlines we managed to comprehend through the soft fuzz of the speakers and the conversations of surrounding families (Apparently that good ol' tagline has people thinking they're now entitled to talk through a movie.)

     None of that mattered though because my sisters and I still got to play with all of the other kids, and see the whole town gathered in one spot, and smell the summer air while we all laughed along to Lilo and Stitch. It's kind of not about the movie per se, but the overall experience of gathering everyone and going to the drive-in. Unfortunately, the experience hasn't lured people enough to keep most of them up and running.

In the 1980s the US was home to about 3,500 drive-in movie theaters. After ten years, that number dropped to about 1,000. Today? There are only around 300 drive-ins in America. Why? Certainly some moderately flawed sound and screening aren't ideal, but they don't eliminate the plethora of pleasant aspects of this mode of movie consumption.

     The biggest cause for the closing of most drive-in-doors is 35 millimeter film was no longer being distributed and all theaters were forced into digital projection. The booming AMCs or Regal Cinemas had minimal trouble fueling the bandwagon but the less-popular outdoor theaters struggled to fund the changes required to project digitally. The drive-in in my town had to go a big community fundraiser to keep ours open.

     There is good news! Johnny Rockets announced a new partnership with USA Drive-Ins. The two businesses plan on opening roughly 200 outdoor theaters by 2018. That's practically doubling the current amount. So if you ever come across an outdoor theater, perhaps consider giving it a try. They're all converted to the new software now so I hear the sound and picture is better than ever.

Happy watching!

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