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Behind the screens: The rise, fall and complicated future of the drive-in theatre

Behind the screens

The rise, fall and complicated future of the drive-in theatre

Peter Nowak

Published August 30, 2019

Listen to an audio version of this article, narrated by the author.

It’s a sweaty Sunday evening in July and the lineup for the snack bar at the 5 Drive-In is interminable. Stretching out of the aging building into the dirt lot, underneath a neon sign that reads “diner,” it snakes past a row of parked cars and groups of people lounging in camping chairs.

The 5 Drive-In in Oakville, Ont.

PETER NOWAK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Tonight’s movie, The Lion King, will be starting in 15 minutes. A collective grumble is brewing among the queued assemblage of mainly twentysomething and thirtysomething couples on dates. No one wants to miss the show.

Nearby, across the lot and beyond the imposing 15-metre-tall screen, cars and pickup trucks in rows a dozen deep await their turns at the front gate. Their occupants, after paying admission, will join the irritated throng for popcorn and drinks.

PETER NOWAK / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Business here at the 5 in Oakville, an hour west of Toronto, looks to be brisk. The main lot is almost full, as are those for the other two screens showing the latest Spider-Man and Toy Story films. All told, nearly 1,000 cars packing several thousand people will be here tonight.

“Drive-ins are as popular as ever,” says Brian Allen, president of Toronto-based Premier Theatres, which owns the 5 and four other Ontario drive-ins. “It’s as strong in major markets as the indoor theatres.”

The drive-ins that remain are indeed popular, but the catch is there are fewer of them every year. Drive-in theatres – like the cars that are their lifeblood, once iconic symbols of freedom and easy living – used to dot North America. But now, like manual transmissions or films that don’t feature superheroes, they’re an increasingly rare breed.

The drive-in is thus at a crossroads. In an era of seemingly limitless entertainment options, skyrocketing property prices and overall declining interest in car ownership, their future has never looked more imperilled.

Yet, as the crowds – primarily young couples and families – at the 5 on this summer evening suggest, there may be life in these theatres yet. The drive-in is dead. Or is it long live the drive-in?

The drive-in concept as it is known today finds its roots in 1933 with Richard Hollingshead, a sales manager at the Whiz Auto Products car parts company in Camden, N.J. According to historians, Hollingshead was looking for a way to accommodate his mother, a larger woman who had trouble sitting in regular movie theatre seats.

He began experimenting in his driveway with his car, a Kodak movie projector and two large sheets strung between some trees. He placed speakers behind the screen and came up with the idea of using ramps so that even cars in the back had a good view.

Hollingshead received a patent for his concept, then opened several drive-ins. His selling points were clear – here was a movie venue that offered more privacy, comfort and freedom than the typical indoor theatre. His slogan at the time was, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” Attendees could insulate themselves from those crying kids or barking dogs and other disturbances simply by rolling up their windows, once movie audio switched to broadcasts over cars’ radios.

The idea took off in the late 1940s and early 1950s in lockstep with the rise of car culture and mass consumption. Families piled into their spacious Chevrolet Bel Air convertibles, Cadillac Eldorados and Studebaker Champions and flocked to outdoor movies. It was a time when Americans, and Canadians, wanted to do everything in their vehicles. Drive-in restaurants, with roller-skating bellhops, also multiplied.

The Skyway Drive-In was Canada's first drive-in theatre and was opened in 1946 at Highway 8 and Gray's Rd, an ideal location for the local students attending Saltfleet High School.

Erland Lee Museum

Between 4,000 and 5,000 drive-in theatres popped up around the United States by the late 1950s, depending on the estimate, accounting for about a quarter of all movie screens. The first Canadian drive-in was the Skyway in Stoney Creek, Ont., in 1946, followed by another 1,500 theatres across the country.

The decline, starting in the 1970s, came just as quickly. The advent of home video and multiplex indoor movie theatres are often cited as the main factors, but auto-related issues also played a role. Successive oil crises brought about by developments in the Middle East curtailed crude exports and drove up prices, leading to smaller cars and negative consumer sentiment.

“The idea of spending money on gas to travel to a drive-in” or sitting for hours in cars that were “smaller and not comfortable” also contributed to the drive-inʼs downfall, says April Wright, director of the 2013 documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie.

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With attendance declining, many drive-ins fell into disrepair while others closed. Disney also stopped making animated movies, which further eroded the appeal for families. Many theatres shifted to adult-oriented fare and became known as “passion pits,” or places where watching a film was merely the secondary activity of choice for the young couples in attendance.

Today, about 320 drive-in theatres remain in the United States, while Canada has between 40 and 50, depending on the estimate. The continuing decline isn’t as precipitous as it was, but theatres are still closing routinely. Last year, Toronto’s Docks Drive-In and Ciné-Parc Templeton in Gatineau, Que., were among the Canadian theatres that ceased operations.

The film industry’s shift to digital projection in recent years hit a number of drive-in owners with costs they couldn’t afford, but the biggest issue continues to be rising property prices. Many proprietors don’t own their land, which means they’re unlikely to have their leases renewed when they expire. Land owners are instead opting for more lucrative redevelopments.

“If you would have asked me one or two years ago, I would have said we’d stabilized, but the numbers show we’re having a decline,” Wright says. “The ones that are going are going very strong. They’re not closing because they’re not doing good business, it’s usually some other reason.”

A case in point is the Park Drive-In in Prince George, one of the three remaining drive-ins operating in British Columbia. (The other two are the Starlight Drive-In in Enderby and the Twilight Drive-In in Aldergrove). Nina Kiss and her husband Jeff recently told CBC that they’re looking to sell, despite the theatre attracting big crowds. If they can’t find a buyer, the Park could close.

Drive-ins took off in the late 1940s and early 1950s in lockstep with the rise of car culture and mass consumption.

PETER NOWAK / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Despite the lineups and packed lots, theatres collectively register as tiny blips in the overall movie business. “Drive-in theatres are virtually a non-factor at this stage,” says Aravinda Galappatthige, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity who covers Cineplex, Canada’s dominant theatre chain. “It’s had no financial relevance since I started covering [the media sector].”

And then there’s the well-documented fact that fewer people are getting driversʼ licences. Statistics from the United States show a massive decline, to just 24 per cent of 16-year-olds having their licence in 2014, from 46 per cent in 1983. Similar drops in teen driving rates have been found in Canada and other industrialized countries.

Much has been made of the decline, with changing social norms, greater availability of alternative transportation options and the perceived death of car culture all cited as factors. Whichever the case, it isn’t good news for drive-ins – they simply can’t survive without drivers to drive-in.

Dane Clatney, 51, and his partner Nadia Yee, 48, are avowed fans of drive-ins. The couple, who live in Toronto and work in sales and government affairs respectively, make a point of coming out to the 5 in Oakville at least once a year, if not more often. They bring their kids Evan, 16, and Griffin, 12. This year, their new dog Piper is also in tow.

“We can sit out and chat a little bit. We can bring the dog, which is a big bonus,” Yee says. “It’s a retro feeling. It brings back memories of when I used to go with my family.”

There’s a social aspect to the drive-in that doesn’t exist at indoor theatres, Clatney adds. Families socialize with each other and their car neighbours before the film starts. “It’s almost like the movie is secondary,” he says.

Movie goers enjoy a night out at The Starlight Drive-In in Enderby, B.C.

JOHN LEHMANN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The business may indeed be showing signs of a rebound, at least for existing proprietors, thanks to new cycles in industry and demographic trends.

For one thing, Disney isn’t just back to releasing family movies again, the company is now almost solely in the business of making films – giant superhero blockbusters – that lend themselves perfectly to the drive-in experience.

The average theatre has room for 1,000 cars, Wright says, meaning that proprietors generally have to draw around 2,000 people to fill the place, which is tough to do with smaller movies.

“Now, you have the films to pull those audiences,” she says.

Almost as important, car sizes have also come back around. With trucks and SUVs now accounting for about 70 per cent of North American car sales, the average vehicle is now much bigger – and therefore more comfortable – than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

Counterintuitively, a handful of new drive-ins are popping up. In Canada, The Boonies Drive-In in Tilbury, Ont., near Windsor, opened in 2015. Owner Richard Schiefer, an electrician by trade, saw the opportunity after the area’s previous drive-in, Stevie Rae’s, closed down. With no other drive-ins in the region, he estimates his market at half a million potential customers within 50 kilometres.

The Boonies has just one screen and can accommodate about 200 cars and on typical weekends is about half full, Schiefer says. But business has been growing every year and he’s planning to turn his 13-acre lot into a multi-use facility with camping and paintball games.

Disney is now back to releasing family movies again, making giant superhero blockbusters that lend themselves perfectly to the drive-in experience.

JOHN LEHMANN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Hope is also on the horizon in the form of the younger generation, who are discovering drive-ins thanks to an appreciation of retro culture aided by social media.

Millennials and their successors in Gen Z are experience-oriented, says Shana MacDonald, an assistant professor specializing in media at the University of Waterloo. They also have an extreme interest in the 1980s – a sense of nostalgia for the decade that actually encapsulates everything that came before it.

“Everything pre-eighties is the eighties to them,” she says. “The eighties are really capturing their attention and even though drive-ins aren’t the eighties, it’s being collapsed into that.”

Social media, meanwhile, is coupled with experiences – which of course must then be documented online. Drive-ins, with their giant screens, lines of cars and neon signs, provide plenty of visual fodder to be shared.

A movie plays at the North-West Drive-In theatre in Toronto in 1961.

ERIK CHRISTENSEN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It’s a retro feeling. It brings back memories of when I used to go with my family.

— Nadia Yee, theatre-goer at the 5 Drive-In in Oakville Ont.

Chris Iannuzzi, 26, runs the La Dolce Vita gelato shop in nearby Oakville and frequents the 5 with his girlfriend and dog every few weeks. He’s also a fan of old-school video game arcades and can testify to his generationʼs supposed appreciation of retro experiences.

“Younger people today want to try different things,” he says. Drive-ins and arcades are “an escape from this time era.”

Iannuzzi says that going to the 5 has been a common activity among his circle since he was in high school. Though fewer of his friends had licences than they might have a generation ago, there was never a problem finding someone to drive. “It wasn’t an issue for me,” he says.

Allen, for his part, believes innovation can offset the decline, which is why Premier Theatres has partnered with Zipcar. Users of the primarily urban-based short-term rental service who take one of its cars to a Premier drive-in get a $25 driving credit, 15 per cent off concessions and free admission for kids.

This blend of new ideas mixed with old-time nostalgia is appealing to newer audiences, which is why Allen believes the future for drive-ins is brighter than it may seem.

“People still want to go out and have an experience. They’re looking for things to do,” Allen says. “It’s more eccentric now, which is why I love it even more.”

CREDITS: Writing and audio by PETER NOWAK; Editing by Stephanie Chan; Copy editing by BARBARA SMITH; Design by JEANINE BRITO; Development by KYLE YOUNG and JEANINE BRITO

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