THE '70s, '80s AND FORWARD INTO THE FUTURE
By the beginning of the 1970s drive-in attendance had plateaued and the amount of theaters in existence in 1982 was only just over half that of the peak year of drive-ins, 1958, when nearly 5,000 screens dotted the landscape of America's urban jungles and rural backroads. The movies were still there, for the most part - there was no lack of cheap horror films and lurid sex fare in the early '80s, to be sure, but drive-ins, in an attempt to stay liquid, began to turn into second-run venues for mainstream Hollywood fare or, worse, porn, which led to much community consternation and, eventually, chained-up entrance gates and abandoned lots. By the time the home video movement was in full swing in the late '80s, the demise of traditional Hollywood entertainment outlets was not coming about in the way heralded by doomsayers who predicted that the Betamax would undermine entertainment industry profits, but home entertainment options were driving more and more nails into the coffins of established drive-in theaters, who were giving over their ever-more-expensive lots out to swap meets or folding altogether due to lack of patronage.
Yet somehow, through all the battles over expensive tracts of land giving way to urban sprawl and encroaching Wal-Marts and mini-malls that characterized the '90s and the beginning of the 21st century, the drive-in never succumbed to extinction. Stalwart independent owners, small real-estate corporations and even some large exhibitor chains never quite relinquished their hope that the drive-in, though an unlikely candidate for a full-scale comeback, still had life in it yet and could be nurtured by the right management and supported by a new generation of drive-in fans who remembered the experience and wanted to actively pass that love on to their kids.
So here we circle back around to the year 2000 and me standing on that lot in Azusa, California, hoping that my three-month-old daughter would someday see and love drive-ins on her own, yet never realistically thinking it would happen. Well, she's eight years old now, and she and her five-year-old sister are four-year veterans of many summer (and winter) trips to the few Southern California drive-ins that are still going strong, theaters that play to year-round record business and the delight of people like my girls and me. The future of the drive-in seems, for the moment at least, assured by its appeal to economically minded families looking for inexpensive ways to have fun together.
The drive-in may never again achieve the particular vibrancy afforded it by the lowbrow pop culture that ran through its veins and its projectors in the '50s, '60s and '70s, but for those who value the experience above all, this is a small price to pay. Many of these theater owners are working hard to make that experience a special one that harkens back to the good old days and fashions fresh, happy memories for a new generation at the same time. As long as there are theaters like these, I feel confident the drive-in will still be around in 30 years when my daughters want to take their own children and tell them about the good old days of movies under the stars.
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