6 Reasons Why Drive-In Theaters Are Never Coming Back
With movie theaters charging the cost of a small car just for the privilege of watching celebrities disappoint us, you can't blame the audience for wanting something more. Movies that ... smell? Movies that replace every character's face with your own, so they're like your own Being John Malkovich? Or maybe if it was a movie but like, outside, and you didn't even have to get out of your car. Oh right, we tried that last one. It didn't take. But why not? Drive-in theaters seem cool. We spoke to Corey and Jillian to try and figure out what went wrong with the whole automotive theater experience ...
Digital Films Are Killing Drive-In Movies
In the 1950s, there were around 4,000 drive-in theaters around the United States. But just like peace, love, and American cars, drive-ins began to decline around the early 1970s. Today, there are only about 300 left, and it's not like we can put them through some sort of captive breeding program or anything. In part, the decline is due to digital film:
"My last summer working there was depressing," said Corey. "The owner was doing everything he could do to afford a digital projector. The [35mm] reels were being discontinued by all the studios, and it was all going digital. He had to take out a big loan. He didn't tell anyone how much, but it was a lot."
"But hypothetically, how much is my first born worth?"
Since digital projectors can cost tens of thousands of dollars, it's no wonder so many drive-ins have shut down rather than follow Hollywood's switch from film to digital. Jillian's manager faced a similar dilemma.
"My manager didn't know what to do," she recalled. "He had owned three drive-ins at one time, but he was down to just the drive-in I worked at. He was really attached to it too, because it had been his dream to own them, and he loved the big marquee outside ... But he needed that projector, and he only had a limited time to get one before too many films switched to digital. He ended up renting out the lot to car shows and gun shows and anyone who would rent the lot. He finally managed to combine [money from those shows] with loans from friends to buy the cheapest digital projector he could."
He tried his best, but sometimes settling is your only option.
Mud Lakes And Bird Attacks Are Just Part Of The Job
Since all the money goes to fancy new projectors, there wasn't a ton of cash leftover for essential repairs. Corey dealt with this pretty much nightly.
"My theater had (and still uses) speakers you attach to your car," he explained. "These went out of style in the 1970s, but the owner refused to get a low frequency FM system to make our sound broadcast [simpler and cheaper]. I'd have to say about a quarter of these speakers weren't working at a given time. [The owner] either repaired them consistently or bought speakers on eBay and hoped they would work. People would constantly come up to the concession stand and complain their speaker stopped working."
"Ya, all I could hear was crying."
"Sorry, that was just me in the back room."
And the concession stand had its own problems: "One year our credit card reader broke, and instead of replacing it, we had a cash only policy. When our pop machine broke we bought 2-liters instead. Only the popcorn maker worked in the concession booth and it felt like we were running a school carnival instead of a movie theater."
Drive-ins age just like people: They refuse to change their ways and start physically falling apart.
"We never repaved our lot," Jillian explained. "I don't know when it was last paved, but it's crunched to gravel. Some deep holes formed, and when it was still muddy I had angry moms and dads come and tell me that their car was stuck in the parking lot because it was in the mud puddle. Our fix for that was a bag of Quikrete and we were told to dump it where we needed it most. It lasted into the summer and over the next year that was our solution."
"Our projection booth was also in bad shape," she continued. "It was built in the 40's when the rest of it was, but it hadn't been touched since. Pieces of it had fallen out, and when I worked there, the holes were so big that we had to take out birds nests every few weeks. We had one bird who attacked families watching a movie on the grass, and they came from one of these holes. They still haven't been fixed."
We had to charge them child prices.
On the plus side: Super authentic showings of Hitchcock's The Birds.
Nature Is The Worst Enemy Of The Drive-In
Corey's drive-in was located in Illinois, and Jillian's was in Virginia. Neither of those places are really conducive to year-round outdoor activities, so their jobs were fairly seasonal. They'd open in spring and be finished by Halloween, which can be a problem when big-name films like Star Wars decide on a Christmas release date.
"Many people come in open pickup beds, and because they all can't squeeze inside [when the weather worsens], they need to leave," explained Jillian. "We had some car shelters there and there is an overhang to the concession booth, but even with those, people won't stay and wait out the rain."
"It's uh ... a 4D showing. Yeah that's it."
Generally movies are rainy day activities, so that's not helping business, either. And it gets worse:
"We had tornado sirens go off," said Corey. But it wasn't just the weather that was a problem. "Working there really made me not like moths. We would turn off all the lights except for the concession booth and the projector, and every summer after the 4th of July we would have a ton of moths swarm the projector. We had Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull on opening night, and halfway through the screen was covered in giant moth shadows. We started to hear boos from everyone in their cars, so my boss took out a giant box of sprays. He told me to pick out any that would kill them, so I took a few, climbed up the scaffolding by the projector, and started spraying like crazy. I didn't see the screen, but I heard cheers and I stayed up there the rest of the night spraying any that came near."
That's actually a way better story than Crystal Skull.
It never occurred to him that they were cheering because what they were seeing was better than the movie.
Drive-Ins Are Hives Of Filth And Debauchery
According to pop culture, sex at the drive-in was a really common thing. Corey and Jillian were more than happy to confirm this for us.
"I was surprised at how many people willingly made out," recalled Corey. "There were families and groups of teenagers nearby and I would still see so many doing it. [Then, during cleanup we'd find] brown paper bags with dirty diapers stuffed in them and condoms."
While Corey saw the sticky aftermath of all that humid Midwestern car sex, he never actually caught anyone in the act. Jillian, on the other hand ...
"We only caught people having sex when someone complained," she said. "Both times we were told, I knocked on their door and told them to knock it off. We couldn't kick them out for it. If someone complained even more, then we might have, but once you're caught doing it, you're going to be celibate the rest of the night ... Going into this, I just thought it was a stereotype, but it's true, and not just for young people. I saw older people kissing just like teenagers. Maybe it brought back memories to when they did it when they were in high school. I'm just glad I never had to interrupt one of them."
"We didn't draw that steamed window heart with a finger."
And we're glad we didn't have to hear about it. Everybody wins!
Drive-ins Have To Double As An Auto Repair Shop
We're not mechanics, but there's something about leaving your car battery running all night that cars just don't like. Drive-ins see car troubles about as often as they see panicked movie-goers attacked by birds, so they have to become their own mini-AAA station.
"During summer months we would have people's batteries die," remembered Corey. "There was one night when five cars conked out in a row. I was the 'utility' employee, so I had to work tickets, concessions, projection booth, be accountant, janitor -- anything they needed me to that night. I was the only employee who knew how to fix a flat tire or jump a car. [Dead batteries] happened so often that we bought a brand new jump box when I was there. The owner refused to buy anything new, but he bought a jump box, and advertised it, like this was some kind of a plus."
They stopped short of an actual pit crew.
"Families came in beaters," he continued. "They would always stop working, especially during summer. Every car would have the AC on, and their battery would go out. As soon as I jumped it they would insist on watching until the end of the movie. One family had their battery go out three times in one night because they kept their car on."
"One elderly couple ... demanded that I wash their windshield so they could watch. I tried to convince them to use their windshield wiper fluid but the owner eventually forced me to clean it with Windex and a rag. I jumped their car the previous month, so maybe they thought we also offered a car service or something."
Or maybe poor kids washing windshields for pocket change is another part of the 1950s the old folks want back.
Which is a work risk no one should need to take (see steamed windows earlier).
Drive-ins Stay Afloat Through Cheap Tickets and Gimmicks
So how are these places staying afloat in this, the age of mini-TVs in minivan headrests? According to Jillian, it's all about knowing their audience.
"We had two main groups keeping us afloat," she explained. "[The first] was families. The kids could run around and yell all they want. It's not enclosed like a movie theater, and no mom or dad would have to embarrassingly leave with their crying kid. The other were people who remembered [drive-ins] from their youth -- the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers. There were some teenagers too, but it was mostly families and old people."
If they had an equal mix of teens and seniors they could have sold demolition derby tickets to families watching them try to park.
Those groups are responsible for just about all of a drive-in's business. And needless to say, it's not enough. Some drive-ins have had to rely on Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns to stay alive. Many, however, turn to the less-respectable option of promo nights.
"We tried a few times to 'enhance' movies," remembered Corey. "When we opened up one year with a second run showing of The Mist, we had a 'special effects' midnight showing. That meant we had a few fog machines around and would turn them on whenever the mist on screen played an important role. No indoor theater would do this. We had picked a windy night to open up the year, and every time we turned on the fog machine the smoke would head right to the outdoor grass seating area and we would hear a ton of coughs. I guess our 'mist' really was trying to kill people."
"Make-up for Dawn of the Dead night would have been too expensive."
Finally, it's important to do all this on the cheap. Jillian's drive-in charged five bucks for a standard adult ticket. Corey's was $15 per car. "Teenagers would come in a pickup truck with three in the cab and six in the bed. That would be, what, $90 at a theater?"
That's a $75 dollar difference, and coincidentally, that's also exactly the price point where poison mist and killer birds become tolerable.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer and interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you would like to see as an article? Then hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Job Secrets Of A Movie Theater Grosser Than The Floor and The 5 Unexpected Downsides Of Working At A Movie Theater.
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