It was after the 1980s cult classic Night of the Comet (the 3rd movie of a quadruple feature) that I stumbled to the concession stand at the Midway Drive-In, located in Illinois’s rural northwest corner. It was past 1:30 a.m. The struggling-to-stay-awake movie buffs in my van wanted more popcorn. And as I walked to the stand, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed in years—the stars, the sublimely celestial Milky Way, arching above a massive movie screen. The theater’s manager announced to all who could hear that Ghostbusters would be next, and I’ve loved drive-ins ever since.
I’ve recently had something of an epiphany thinking about that night: In an age where movies have become instant gratification and the internet provides endless noise and distraction, what the drive-in theater offers—a shared, communal moment surrounded by a summer’s night—is more valuable than ever. Sure, you can watch a movie on your phone, but it’s an isolating experience (you and your friends can’t huddle around it and watch it together). And yes, in your home, you can stream virtually any film ever made in seconds ... but you can’t see it on a massive screen under the stars. Movies were made to be romantic; so why solely watch them on sterile, unromantic mediums?
But not everyone agrees with me, and as a result, there are fewer drive-ins now than at any time since their inception. In 1958, there were more than 4,000 of them. Now there are fewer than 400 and declining.
Which begs the question, if people have access to Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ anywhere on any device, will there be enough of an audience to save the drive-in from extinction?
I reached out to two longtime drive-in theater owners to talk about the medium’s uncertain future, what the theaters mean to movie-goers today, and how they came to love outdoor cinemas in the first place.
“You can see how passionate, and how much of a life it's been for me,” says Jim Kopp, owner of the Family Drive-In in the little town of Stephens City, Virginia. It’s the last thing he says at the end of a long interview. The drive-in was—and still is—a lifelong love.
For Kopp, it started in the 1950s and 60s, when he was a child living in the Pittsburgh area, where there was once 35 drive-ins. “Our families attended the drive-ins on an almost weekly basis,“ he says. “In my twenties, we didn't have any place to go. We'd get together and go to the drive-in and go drinking.”
Outdoor theaters began to decline in popularity in the late 1970s through the 80s, but to Kopp, “every week it seemed like I was at the drive-in.“ Now living in the DC area, he found one he loved more than ever: the Family Drive-In in rural Virginia. Eventually, he decided he wanted to own it, but the owner wasn’t selling. So, in 2006, he and his wife Megan chose a different path.
“We bought a drive-in theater off of eBay for $22,000,” he says, chuckling because he knows how silly that sounds. It was called the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater in Henderson, North Carolina, and it was in a “real bad state.” Kopp recalls the moment he and the consultant he hired to help fix up the property visited the newly purchased theater for the first time. After getting out of his car, Kopp boasted about his wonderful purchase. The consultant replied, “Aw hell, Jim, stay off of eBay!”
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Pictured above: The Family Drive-In, Stephens City, VA
Despite no experience, Megan and Jim Kopp resurrected the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater, and today it’s one of a handful of operating drive-ins still in existence. But Kopp never forgot about the Family Drive-In back in Virginia, and in 2010, he received a call from the owner, asking if he wanted to operate and lease his dream theater.
“I said ‘heck, yes!’” Kopp recalls. “And I was in his office the next day.“
A similar story was being written in the St. Louis area. Steve Bloomer, owner of the Skyview Drive-In in Belleville, Illinois, has been in and around drive-ins all his life. For him, it’s always been a family thing.
“My grandfather built the drive-in 70 years ago. Been with the family all that time,” he says. “ I was about a year-and-a-half old when it opened.”
Bloomer fondly remembers what it was like to go to his family’s theater. “We probably went almost every weekend,” he says. “My mom and my grandma would take me out to the drive-in. We'd play on the playground, ride the rides, watch the cartoons, and then we’d come home so Mom and Grandma could watch the wrestling matches.”
Both Bloomer and Kopp grew up with the outdoor cinema, and six decades later, they’re still in love with it, touched with the same romantic feeling that hit me right before Ghostbusters screened that night from years ago.
It’s hard to describe why I love the drive-in today, decades past its prime. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it has something to do with being outdoors, or amidst unpredictable weather, and how that shakes up your monotonous movie-viewing routine. Or maybe it’s a palpable sense of community, of reacting to a film with real people rather than chatting about films online, anonymously.
"I'm not worried about it myself," Bloomer says when I bring up the growth of streaming services. Netflix has 60 million U.S. subscribers and growing, Hulu has 28 million, and Disney+ looms with a November 2019 release date. But Bloomer is confident: in your own home, you can’t recreate the drive-in experience, he tells me.
“I still tell people this is magical,” Kopp says. “You can go to a movie anywhere ... But there's nothing like experiencing it at the drive-in.”
When I ask what makes the drive-in stand out from other movie-watching mediums, both owners mention the screens: “We've got the biggest screens in the industry,” Kopp says, speaking for drive-ins everywhere (and then conceding IMAX screens are a bit bigger). His theater’s screen is 84 feet wide, 65 feet high. At Skyview, it’s 105 feet wide.
They also talk about the setting. People can bring their pets, sit out in their lawn chairs, and soak in the warm weather. “When there’s no clouds, you can look at the stars.” Kopp says. “And it's relaxing. A lot of us have a playground, so the kids can go play on the playground before the show time.“
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Pictured above: The Family Drive-In concession stand
But the main point Kopp and Bloomer make is this: a drive-in movie is an event to be shared with friends or family. At a normal indoor theater, you might arrive 15 minutes before showtime. But at the drive-in “people get there two or two-and-a-half hours before the show starts, so they can socialize,” Bloomer tells me.
Plus, it’s not unusual for a visit to include some unusually memorable moments. Kopp recalls the time the Aflac duck made an appearance at Raleigh Road. Once a Family Drive-In regular proposed to his future wife via an intricately rehearsed stunt involving a pre-recorded video. And as Bloomer says, if the theater is showing Rocky Horror Picture Show, you never know what’s going to happen.
“Three years ago, I was in the concession stand getting ready to close,” he tells me. “About a half-hour into the [Rocky Horror], this lady comes in and says, 'I'm really upset. There are people outside screaming obscenities at the screen! You have to go out and stop that." I said, 'Ma'am, if I stopped that, they would be screaming obscenities at me.'”
While outdoor theaters serve a kind of symbol of the past, they’re not exactly the same as they were 50 or 60 years ago. They’ve had to evolve in order to survive.
The biggest changes can be seen right on the screen. For decades, drive-ins strictly screened low-budget B movies, like Creature from the Black Lagoon, and some eventually began showing X-rated films. The product on the screen was not particularly family friendly.
“Back in the 80’s, drive-ins were a hangout for the teenage crowd. The nickname for drive-ins was a ‘sin bin.’” Bloomer says. “It's not that way anymore.”
In the last few decades, drive-ins have switched to showing major-studio first-run films, competing directly with the indoor multiplex. And with different movies, you get draw different audiences.
“It's mostly young families,” Bloomer says. “Yes, we do get some older couples that come up there on nostalgia, they remember their youth, or they'll bring their grandkids. ... The majority of our audience, our demographic, is like 25 to 45 with 2.1 kids.”
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Pictured above: The Skyview Drive-In at Twilight, 1998
Another change is the technology. While they may have been a few years behind their indoor counterparts, most outdoor cinemas have made the switch from film to digital, which ensures they can show the big-budget pictures on opening weekend.
Many theaters, like Bloomer’s Skyview Drive-In, have also upgraded their sound system. Instead of those vintage silver speakers, theaters have adopted an FM system that allows customers to play the film through their own stereo. This has improved the customer experience—Bloomer says before the switch that “whenever people would come into the drive-in, and they would drive around to find the speaker that would work.”
And while these theaters may have their origins in the 1940s, they’re not limiting themselves to decades-old marketing tactics. One way to get more people in the seats—or in this case, cars in the lawn—is to run a Groupon deal. It’s a 21st-century compliment to a quintessential 20th-century experience.
Because his theater 80 miles from Washington, DC and 100 miles from Baltimore,
Kopp says “I have to pull people in. Groupon is pulling people in for me, and I have [customers] who say, ‘I didn't even know there was a drive-in until I saw it on Groupon.’”
If you look at the data for how many drive-ins are left, the numbers look dire—of the 4,000+ outdoor cinemas that existed during its 1950s heydey, fewer than 10% remain. There are none left in Delaware, Louisiana, or North Dakota, and only one left in Maryland, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and New Jersey, among others.
But the way that Steve and Jim talk, it's not Netflix or Hulu or Disney or some invisible-yet-insidious new technology that makes the drive-in an endangered species. The biggest reason why drive-ins are closing is the rising price of land.
“Unfortunately down the road I see it deteriorating,” Kopp says when I ask about the future of outdoor cinema. “The land’s going to be more valuable.“
It’s a familiar tale: the land that a drive-in sits on becomes prime real estate. This particular theater might be profitable, but not nearly as profitable as another business would be on that land (a shopping center, a hotel, a gas station, etc.) The owner sells the property, developers swoop in, and another theater bites the dust. Take, for instance, the Super 29 Drive-In in Fairfax, Virginia, which used to be one of Kopp’s favorites. In 1987, it closed down and Costco moved in.
Now, why would an owner sell, knowing that would mean the end of a beloved theater? Kopp says, for the most part, it’s simply a matter of the owner needing to retire.
“I'm 65, most of them are in their 70s, 80s, and they're getting tired,” he says. “But there's not enough people that want to take on the drive-in as a business, not enough younger folks in their 30s and 40s.”
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Pictured above: Jim Kopp, Family Drive-In owner
“We have some victories,” Kopp says, and he mentions the Starlite Drive-In Theatre in Wichita, which celebrated its grand re-opening a few weeks ago. The previous owner had intended to sell the property and the theater was scheduled to be demolished. But there was considerably outcry from the Wichita, and city officials stepped in to find a new owner while the City Council approved a loan for new projectors. It’s the sort of story Kopp wants to see more of, because he knows how important a theater can mean to the community.
“A lot of communities nationwide don't understand how big of a draw for tourism drive-ins are,” he says. “We pull people out from the Washington DC area. Most of them stay the night. So think about it: they have to eat at a restaurant, they stay the night, and they gas their car out near Winchester, Virginia.”
But the Starlite comeback story is currently the exception, not the rule. Bloomer summarizes the problem facing these theaters going forward: “It's kind of back to when they were being built in the 50s and 60s, you gotta find something that's out of town a little bit, so the land isn't so expensive. That's what happened to drive-ins ... A lot of them sold out just to get the money for the value of the land.”
While drive-ins might have made it to 2019, there’s no guarantee they’ll make it to 2049. (At which point, who knows what our preferred means of watching films will be?) I hope it does, and if you agree with that sentiment, the least you can do is buy a ticket to your nearest outdoor theater—and if you have a little extra money left over, maybe you could buy the entire theater, too.