Drive-In Movies: A Primer

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By Dennis Cozzalio

Foothills Drive-inINTRODUCTION: A FADING INTO THE SUNSET

Back in the summer of 2000, my newborn daughter went to her first movie. My wife and I took her to the Foothill Drive-in, along fabled Route 66 in Azusa, California, to see that revered children's classic Mission: Impossible 2. All right, she was three months old and she slept through most of it (so did my wife, truth be told). But regardless of what was actually playing, it was a moment of bittersweet significance for me. I finally had a child of my own, and it seemed likely she would never know the kind of fun to be enjoyed at a drive-in movie.

I walked her around the Foothill's near-empty lot and told her stories about the drive-in movie theaters of my past - how I worked on the snack bar and clean-up staff of my hometown passion pit; how being friends with the son of the theater owner got me on to the crew for the drive-in's annual 4th of July fireworks show; and how movies weren't necessarily better at a drive-in - in fact, the projection and sound were usually a downgrade from what you could see and hear at an indoor theater - but they were always special, and often somehow more memorable.

My daughter and I walked around the lot and approached one of the old speaker posts, which still had speakers attached even though the Foothill was sporting FM radio sound originating from a low-wattage transmitter in the projection booth. Gone were the days of bouncing from parking spot to parking spot in search of the one speaker whose sound didn't seem like it was originating from 1933 inside a cellophane bag, or forgetting to replace the speaker after the end of the movie and either tearing the pot metal device from the post or shattering your driver's-side window as you began to pull your car away. And, I told my daughter with sincere melancholy, the drive-in itself would likely soon vanish altogether. And rising property values combined with the cost of maintaining drive-in businesses in the home video age ensured that the few remaining drive-ins in 2000 would stay squarely in the crosshairs of cultural irrelevance, marked for a swift and steady disappearance.

As I stood there and held my daughter in the shadow of the Foothill's drive-in screen tower, I honestly believed that by the time she was old enough to put on her pajamas and load up in our car with a bunch of pillows, blankets and bags of home-popped popcorn and head to the drive-in like I did with my family when I was a kid, the drive-in movie theater would be a true dinosaur - gone, baby, gone.

YET THE PROJECTOR FLICKERS ON

Fortunately, and incredibly, I was wrong. Although they are far less in number than they were during their peak in the late '50s (in 1958, specifically, there were 4,058 drive-ins in operation across the nation), the drive-in movie theater still exists. The number of drive-ins still showing movies has remained at slightly above 400 over the last 10 years - the last precipitous drop occurred from 1998-1999, when 134 drive-ins closed during that single year. (Less than a year after we last visited with my daughter in 2000, the Foothill Drive-in closed. It has been dark for several seasons, its screen torn down, though its lavish marquee, a noted attraction along Route 66, remains standing.) But since 1999 the total number of drive-ins has stabilized; fewer have closed and disappeared. Going to the drive-in in 2008 is a rarified experience, to be sure - Californians in 1958 had 223 separate drive-ins in this state alone from which to choose. That number, as of 2007, was down to 19, and at this writing, on the 75th anniversary of the opening of the first drive-in back in 1933, it may be even lower than that.

Drive-in Theater

But the drive-ins which remain, here in California and all over the country, are experiencing a renewed commitment from their owners, and especially a renewed commitment from customers who cherish the outdoor movie vibe as one that is extremely friendly to families, family budgets and family viewing habits. Most drive-ins have admission prices that are five to six dollars per person less expensive than their indoor cousins, and some don't charge admission, or charge only a minimal $1 fee, for children under the ages of 9 to 11. Modern drive-ins cater to budget-conscious families by playing double features of first-run commercial fare, with an emphasis on family-oriented pictures - blockbuster releases and animation from the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks. And many here in California and elsewhere have invested thousands of dollars to maximize the experience of the theater itself, upgrading everything from the snack bar and surrounding grounds (tiki décor, '50s diners and California orange groves are just three of the themes adorning drive-ins in the Los Angeles area) to the technical presentation, with FM car radio sound and super-bright projection that rivals that which can be seen on indoor screens. If the heyday of the drive-in is gone, so too then are the days of squinting to make out shadowy images on badly illuminated screens and listening to crackly sound heard through antiquated, poorly maintained speakers.

One way that drive-ins really have changed, however, is the kind of movies they feature. If one were to take an informal survey of drive-ins across the country and what they were showing in mid-June 2008, the list would probably boil down to some combination of Kung Fu Panda, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, maybe Sex and the City and most assuredly Iron Man, attached to second-feature fare like Speed Racer, The Forbidden Kingdom and What Happens in Vegas. The men and women who book drive-ins live for a schedule of releases like these, because they know there is endless family appeal there that can be extended and reshuffled well into the summer season. In this regard, the current incarnation of the drive-in is no different than drive-ins were in their infancy and through the 1940s and 1950s.

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