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The Future of Movies? The Drive-In at 80

This summer could mark the beginning of a comeback for outdoor screens

Donna Day
June 18, 2013 12:45 PM ET

Tired of multiplexes that charge outrageous prices for movies projected onto tiny screens in auditoriums with poor sound quality, cramped seats, sticky floors and patrons who won't stop chatting or texting? If you live in Fort Worth, Texas, there's a new solution – or rather, a very old solution, given a new lease on life: the drive-in theater.

Having just opened this month, the new Coyote Drive-In offers Fort Worth residents three giant screens, each playing a nightly double feature for the price of just $8 for adults or $6 for kids. (Pets get in free.) Customers can arrive by car (or bike, or even horseback) and picnic under the stars, enjoying wines and craft beers, while first-run features screen overhead, with sound broadcast through the car's FM radio.

Summer Movie Preview 2013

The Coyote is one of the first brand new, stand-alone drive-in theaters built in decades (though some ad hoc drive-ins have also appeared in underused parking lots and next to tall buildings with plain walls suitable for projecting movies). Its opening is an encouraging sign for the drive-in industry, which turns 80 this summer. The last few decades have taken a heavy toll on the once-ubiquitous drive-in. And while the prospect of an economical alternative to the multiplex could bring families of ticketbuyers back to the drive-ins, there's still one major obstacle for drive-in theater owners to overcome.

The first drive-in opened in Camden, N.J. in 1933. Within 20 years, the business had reached its peak, with one in every four theaters in America boasting an outdoor screen. But increasing real estate prices and the rise of television and other entertainment alternatives all but killed the drive-ins, which once numbered more than 5,000 but today number about 360.

Today's surviving drive-ins traffic in nostalgic memories of Fifties car culture, offering Baby Boomers who are now parents and grandparents a chance to relive the family outings of their youth – or allowing today's young couples a very private date-night place to park. Still, like indoor movie theaters, drive-ins are being forced to modernize their projectors as the entire movie industry phases out celluloid film in favor of digitized movies.

Digital distribution saves the studios money; instead of a $1,500 celluloid print spooled on massive reels, they can just ship each theater a tiny $100 hard drive. (Over the next couple of years, that cost will shrink to almost zero as the studios send movies out online by satellite.) But the theaters have had to switch over from old-school 35mm film projectors to digital ones, a process which can cost upwards of $70,000 per screen. That cost may be even higher for drive-ins, which need even brighter projector bulbs (since the screen is often 100 yards away) and more elaborate cooling and ventilation systems to keep those bulbs from overheating.

Like art-house theaters, drive-ins tend to be independently owned, not part of chains, so they may not have the resources to pay for the conversion. The cost is a hurdle that threatens to reduce the number of drive-ins to about 250. Many owners have turned to local fundraisers and to the crowd-sourced philanthropy of Kickstarter to drum up the money for the new projectors, with mixed success.

The Harvest Moon theater in Gibson City, Illinois didn't have much luck with Kickstarter but still managed to raise enough money through its own fundraising website. (According to the Chicago Tribune, two kids who were regular patrons started lemonade stands and raised $350 for the drive-in.) A similar Facebook drive to save Minnesota's Cottage View drive-in failed last year; now the theater is being replaced by a Wal-Mart. The Fairlee Drive-in and Motel in Fairlee, Vermont (where you can watch from your bed as well as your car) has a webpage soliciting donations to pay for one $70,000 digital projector; so far, it's raised less then $16,000. The Skyline Theater, one of five drive-ins left in Washington State, needed $40,000 and successfully raised the money on Kickstarter.

The owners of the Highway 411 Drive-In in Leesburg, Alabama spent $150,000 to convert two screens to digital, but they say it's worth it, boasting that each new projector is four times as bright as the old 35mm system and offers a picture with four times the resolution of a 1080p high-definition image.

Of course, even if you don't contribute to the drive-ins' fundraising efforts, you can still support them with your patronage this summer. The site Drive-ins.com offers a database searchable by city, state, and ZIP code of all currently operating drive-ins in the United States. If you're lucky, you're not more than a tank of gas away from a place where you can see a movie on a screen five stories high, projected against a starry summer sky.

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