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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried