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The drive is on to keep the drive-in

Is a slice of authentic American cultural life about to disappear? Geoffrey Macnab parks his Chevy in front of the big screen

The drive-in cinema is true Americana, a ritualised way of watching movies that has long been celebrated in popular culture. It is 80 years since the first drive-in was opened in Camden, New Jersey, in June 1933 by Richard M Hollingshead Jr, a sales manager at Whiz Auto Products whose twin passions were films and cars... and whose mother was very, very big. She found regular cinemas uncomfortable. That was one of the main reasons why her devoted son arranged for her to be able to watch films from the comfort of the family automobile. He put up a sheet in the yard for her. He then realised he could make a business from outdoor screenings.

“Sit in your car – talk or smoke...see and hear movies” was the logo on one of the Camden drive-in's first posters. At a time when people still dressed up formally to see pictures in conventional cinemas (often referred to as “picture palaces”), the new venue offered informality and privacy. “Elderly people, invalids, convalescents and fat persons can watch the movies in comfort and privacy,” the publicity promised.

Drive-ins are now under threat as never before. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US had over 4,000 drive-in theatres. As historian Douglas Gomery has noted, the business they generated was estimated to be worth more than “live theatre, opera, and professional and college football combined” in the US. Now there are only a few hundred left. Those that remain are struggling to convert to a new digital era. Digital projectors are not only expensive ($70,000 to $80,000 each). They also require climate-controlled rooms.

“These drive-ins are outdoors. They are dirty. Their owners have been having to construct these rooms that keep digital projectors cool in the winter and warm in the summer. It is a pretty large expense,” notes April Wright, director of new documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie.

It doesn't help either that sitting in your car is a lousy way to watch a 3D movie. Thanks to the polarisation in the windshields, the 3D glasses won't work. This means that big tent-pole movies like James Cameron's Avatar are off limits.

Nonetheless, the habit of the drive-in is so ingrained in American life that this style of film-going is unlikely ever to disappear for good. Earlier this spring the American National Association of Theatre Owners rallied to the drive-in's cause, joining forces with technology company Cinedigm to help drive-in cinemas make the conversion to digital.

Drive-ins are also increasingly able to trade on their nostalgia value. Websites have sprung up celebrating the history of drive-ins (for example, www.drive-ins.com, which offers an exhaustive database of drive-in theatres opened since the 1930s). Car-hire companies like Alamo are trying to persuade tourists in the US to sample the drive-in experience. Drive-ins are offering double- and triple-bills of favourite old movies that can whisk cinema-goers back to the days when the venues were in their pomp.

Anthropologists and social historians wanting to learn more about shifting patterns in American life in the 20th century can learn plenty from the drive-ins.

It goes without saying that to run a drive-in movie theatre, you need open space and cars. It was no accident that drive-ins boomed in the post-war era when there was increasing affluence in US society. As American consumers bought fridges, TVs and vacuum cleaners in huge amounts, they also purchased millions and millions of automobiles.

Soon, while their parents stayed home to watch television, teenagers began to head to the drive-ins, which were usually two or three miles out of town. It was a place to escape their parents, watch motorcycle movies and “make out”. Films of choice included titles like Hot Rod Gang, The Wasp Woman and Dragstrip Riot. Church leaders tried to stop new venues being built. One, the Reverend J Virgil Lily in Maryland, warned that they had “a demoralising influence leading to promiscuous relationships.”

Producer Roger Corman, who supplied many of the exploitation films the teens so savoured, told Wright that the drive-ins' reputation as “passion pits” where youngsters came to court and have sex has been exaggerated. “That may have been true but only to a slight degree. Most people were there to see the film,” Corman said. Nonetheless, anyone who has seen Francis Coppola's The Outsiders will know that if you were a narcissistic young delinquent who wanted to impress a girl and pick a fight, the drive-in was the best place.

Historically, the US states where drive-ins have most flourished are New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. “People think that's funny because they are cold climate states,” Wright reflects. Drive-ins are almost as popular in Texas and California. But these venues aren't an exclusively American phenomenon. You can find them in Canada, Europe, (Manchester has one) and even in China. However, they remain more firmly rooted in US culture than they are anywhere else.

Eighty years after their creation, drive-ins have come full circle. Now, the drive-in is again targeting the family audience. Given that the average drive-in theatre has room for 500 cars, each likely to have at least two cinemagoers/passengers, Hollywood is realising that there is still money to be made from screening outdoors. Thousands of venues may have closed but it looks as if the ones that negotiate the transition to digital should be able to survive.

“The studios are only making these bigger superhero films and big animated films. Those are perfect for drive-in audiences”, Wright reflects.

But the teenagers who used to swarm to the drive-ins in the Corman era to swagger, drink beer, neck in the back seat and fight have long since moved elsewhere.