There are only 356 drive-in theaters left in the U.S. and the majority of them may close at the end of this season if they don’t upgrade to expensive digital equipment. Hollywood movie studios will stop producing movies in 35mm film in 2013 and a large number of the remaining drive-ins in the country cannot afford the estimated $80,000 to upgrade to digital.
Drive-in theaters are woven into the fabric of American culture — at their peak in 1958 there were over 5000 drive-ins in the U.S. Many couples and families have fond drive-in memories — they evoke images of the past, when Americans were unplugged from technology and the entire family could spend an evening sitting in the fresh air in lawn chairs (or a beat up car) enjoying a movie for a reasonable price. And B.Y.O.S. — Bring Your Own Snacks — no need to smuggle Milk Duds into the theater in your pants!
My parents used to take our family to the drive-in dressed in our pajamas so they could just toss us into bed when we arrived home after the late show. We would feast on huge Tupperware bowls of homemade popcorn and drink Pepsi from glass bottles. I have a vivid memory of the funeral march scene from the 1973 James Bond flick, Live and Let Die. I was in third grade and our parents — not really the sheltering types — thought we would be asleep by the second movie that night (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here). I don’t think I slept soundly for months after that.
Remember the clunky silver sound box that hung on your car window before the theaters converted to FM sound? And the etiquette that all but a few miscreants willingly followed to make everyone’s experience more pleasant — parking lights only, keep your foot off the brake pedal, don’t obstruct the view with your hatch, large vehicles at the back.
I cherish memories of drive-in dates and groups of friends crammed into my best friend’s Chevy Nova to take advantage of the per car rate (it’s still only $18/per car in our area). Later, when we had kids of our own, my husband took our boys to see Spider Man, Iron Man, and a host of other superhero movies for their boys’ nights out. We also joined other families who all parked together — tailgate party style — with coolers full of juice boxes, fruit, cheese, and baby carrots. Those were the years we had to park in the back row because we all had minivans. Fortunately, there was enough adult humor in Shrek and Night at the Museum to make it fun for the adults as well as the kids, despite the minivans and the healthy culinary choices.
It’s sad to think that the next generation will only see movies online or in cramped movie theaters, never experiencing the joys of swatting mosquitos and hearing crickets chirp along with the movie soundtrack. But unless they can bring their technology up-to-speed, drive-ins will go the way of the 8-track tape player and the Chevy Vega.
Honda has noted the problem and hopes to save five theaters through Project Drive-In:
We want to preserve this iconic part of American car culture. So we’re taking the first step by starting a drive-in fund and donating 5 digital projectors. Your vote decides where they go.
At their website you can vote for a theater you’d like Honda to save (if you don’t have a preference, vote for our local Blue Sky Drive-In in Wadsworth, Ohio!), donate, or pledge to visit a local drive-in this summer. They also have a tool kit to spread the word about the project (#SAVETHEDRIVEIN).
It would be such a shame to see many of the massive outdoor screens across the country go permanently dark. This would be a great opportunity for communities — and even other corporations — to raise funds to save their local theaters, many of which hold an important place in a town’s history and memories. Consider how you can help!