Joshua Sova's romance with the drive-in movie theater began when he was very young. The 33-year-old Muskego, Wis., resident fondly remembers family outings under the stars, catching a double feature (usually one good movie and one not so much), playing at the on-premises playground before showtime, eating dinner and relaxing in comfortable chairs they'd brought with them.
"It is an entire experience," he said.
Unfortunately for alfresco film fans, the decades have not been kind to the drive-in industry; the number of outdoor theaters has dwindled to a tiny fraction of their former glory. Like a plot twist you can see coming a mile away, the drive-in's demise seems perpetually right around the corner.
According to Drive-ins.com, which tracks and promotes the outdoor-movie industry, the first open-air, drive-in theater opened in 1933 in Camden, N.J., and the format peaked a quarter century later with as many as 5,000 "ozoners" as they were nicknamed. That high-water mark coincided with the apex of Americans' love affair with the fun and freedom associated with the automobile, which was incorporated into every aspect of life — from drive-in hamburger stands and roadside motels to the advent of the suburb. In his 2010 book, "Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster," Paul Ingrassia attributes the automobile boom to the " '4-H Club': hamburgers, highways, houses, and hotels." A fifth "H" was Hollywood.
Drive-ins.com states that the father of the open-air movie, Richard Hollingshead Jr., opened that first New Jersey drive-in as a way to drum up more business for his real stock-in-trade, selling auto parts. "And, he theorized, the best way to do this was to establish a place where people could park their cars, enjoy a meal, and watch a movie outdoors," the Las Vegas-based enthusiast site states.
But over time, moviegoers increasingly traded the "convertible" experience for the reliable, climate-controlled comforts of a "hardtop." Indoor theaters were exempt from the whims of Mother Nature, and the winds of change were gathering against ozoners. Fast-rising land values, daylight-saving time's widespread adoption and growing home-entertainment options put drive-ins on the road to extinction.
Representing a quarter of U.S. movie screens at their height, remaining drive-ins — of which there are an estimated 356 — now account for only 1.5%, according to the Los Angeles Times. USA Today last summer reported a small resurgence as new and shuttered drive-ins opened and reopened across the nation, but industry observers expect the comeback to be short-lived.
Kipp Sherer, who runs Drive-ins.com with his sister, Jennifer Sherer, said the switch to digital projectors — as costly as $100,000 per screen — at the expense of more-affordable 35-millimeter two-reel prints, is pricing out many already-struggling mom-and-pop owners. That's too bad, he said, because digital projectors have enhanced the quality of drive-in presentations thanks to their sharper, more stable image. Digital projectors also enable drive-ins to show other fare besides movies, like major sporting events, to generate additional revenue, Sherer said.
If you've never been to a drive-in, or haven't for a long time, Sherer urges you to check one out. Drive-ins.com has a state-by-state search function to help you find one near you. "It's a unique piece of American culture that's been disappearing for a number of years," he said.
Drive-in fan Sova has never lost his affinity for the experience, but he acknowledges that it's more of a nostalgic novelty than something he would expect to regain mainstream appeal. "The 41 Twin Drive-In that I went to as a kid felt like another world even though it was only 20 minutes away from my house," he said. "It was surrounded by trees; it had four giant screens; the sounds of the city were muffled; and the stars shined a little brighter."
He hopes one day to share the drive-in experience with his children when they're old enough, but he's not confident there will be any left near him. The 41 Twin has long since been demolished and the one he now goes to, the 65-year-old Keno near Kenosha, Wis., is rumored to be closing next year to make way for a Wal-Mart. He said he'll still be willing to drive the 45 minutes to the next closest one in Jefferson, Wis., and after that, who knows?
"There are still some drive-ins in northern Wisconsin that I hope will stay open forever," Sova said. "If they don't, then I plan to buy a giant inflatable screen for my back yard."