DRIVE-IN THEATRES, TECHNOLOGY, AND CULTURAL CHANGE.

Author:Fox, Mark A.
Position::Report
 
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  1. Introduction

    Only 319 drive-in theatres remained open in the summer of 2016, compared to around 5,500 indoor theatres (Drive-Ins.com, 2017; National Association of Theatre Owners, 2017). Apart from the United States, Canada and Australia are the only other countries with significant numbers of drive-ins remaining --with 52 and 15 drive-ins, respectively (Drive-Ins.com). Drive-in theatres have largely been a US phenomenon and were never more than a "curiosity" in European countries (Horton, 1976: 238). One reason for this disparity lies in the relatively high rates of car ownership in the United States. This was particularly noticeable throughout the 1950s, when drive-ins experienced rapid growth. A 1958 article in British Kinematography opined that there were no UK drive-ins at that time due in part to the country's low rates of car ownership compared to the US (0.077 vs. 0.325 vehicles per capita, respectively), while also noting that twilight hours, mist, and fog conditions in the UK were generally unfavorable to drive-in theatre operations (Pulman, 1958). Historically, the predominance of drive-ins in the US was also a function of the relatively low cost of land relative to other regions around the world, such as Europe where "land is at a premium" (Horton, 1976: 238).

    Richard Hollingshead, Jr. created the first drive-in cinema during the Great Depression. Hollingshead intended to take advantage of three things that he believed people would be reluctant to give up, even in tough economic times: food, automobiles, and movies. Hollingshead also believed his invention would address what he considered were the reasons why indoor theatres did not reach a wider audience: "The mother says she's not dressed; the husband doesn't want to put on his shoes; the question is what to do with the kids; then how to find a baby sitter; parking the car is difficult or maybe they have to pay for parking; even the seats in the theater may not be comfortable to contemplate" (qtd. in Segrave, 2006: 2).

    The key issue Hollingshead addressed was how to arrange parked cars so that drive-in patrons could see the screen without obstruction from other vehicles. Hollingshead's design for drive-in theatres resolved this issue by incorporating a clamshell shaped lot, terraced parking rows, and ramps to tilt cars upward toward the screen (Hollingshead, 1933). As this layout combines the shared, communal experience of viewing a movie with the privacy and comfort of one's own vehicle, these elements remain the basis of drive-in design to this day.

    This paper makes use of existing literature to explore how the drive-in experience has changed over the years. I examine themes relating to who attends drive-ins and the experience of attending the drive-in itself--while also focusing on how the physical environment affects the audience experience. Next, I focus on changes in the prominent technological features of drive-ins, most notably screens, projection equipment, and sound. Then, with reference to data from drive-ins that have closed in recent years, I analyze how the move to digital projection has further disrupted the industry.

  2. The Changing Nature of the Drive-in Experience

    While the first drive-in theatre opened in 1933, growth remained largely static in the years that followed. Initially regarded as a fad, there were only 95 drive-ins in the United States by 1942 (Shiffer, 1990; Alicoate, 1942). The initial stagnation of drive-ins was partly a function of the Great Depression and, later, building and fuel rationing restrictions throughout World War II (Bell, 2003; Maxwell and Balcom, 1946).

    From 1947 to 1951, the number of drive-ins increased from 155 to 4,151 (Fox and Black, 2011). During this same period thousands of indoor theatres closed (Horton, 1954). Much of the early success of drive-ins is attributable to timing and the sociological changes that had transpired in the post-World War II era.

    After WWII, drive-ins were located in areas that were appealing to nearby communities--typically along the pre-interstate US or state highways and within the reach of several small or medium-sized towns (Shiffer, 1990). In 1953, Downs noted that: "For location, present drive-ins require a fairly level piece of ground, 10-15 acres in extent, away from distractions and near or on a large highway, with access to an adjacent area of 35,000 to 60,000 people, preferably of the laboring class rather than white collar workers" (Downs, 1953: 154). Not surprisingly, the suburbanization triggered by the baby boom accelerated the growth of drive-ins during the 1950s (Gomery, 1985). Compared to attending the drive-in, it was more time consuming and costly for those living in the suburbs to travel to downtown cinemas (Gomery, 1985).

    The low cost and widespread availability of land had also facilitated the post-war growth of drive-ins. By 1951, drive-in theatre capacity ranged from 200 to 2,000 vehicles located on three to thirty acres of land (Luther, 1951). Drive-ins with a 500-vehicle capacity had an estimated land cost per viewing (vehicle space) of $150 ($75,000 for a 500 vehicle drive-in); more elaborate drive-ins averaged $250 or more per vehicle space ($200 to $250 for a 1,000 vehicle operation) (Downs, 1953). In addition to affordable real estate, the development of new drive-ins during this time was spurred by the rather modest construction costs relative to indoor theatres. In 1950, the costs of building materials and equipment used in drive-in theatre construction were estimated at just 20% of those for an indoor theatre of equivalent capacity (Underhill, 1950).

    The end of wartime restrictions on gasoline (Underhill, 1950), combined with increasing car ownership in the United States throughout the 1950s (Lobban, 1996b), revitalized drive-in theatres as well. Many Americans were now buying their first automobiles and "the chance to use the new car on a pleasure excursion added its attraction to those of the movie itself' (Downs, 1953: 159). Automobile purchases increased from only 69,500 vehicles in 1945 to over 7.9 million in 1957 (Cohen, 1994). As Marchant observes, the ensuing car culture of the 1950s was key to the success of drive-ins cinemas: "After war-time gas rationing was discontinued, men and women found that their cars restored their sense of control. They were in charge of their destiny" (2001: 55). Whereas Europeans tended to view cars primarily a means of transportation, Americans considered their cars to have a wider range of uses: "As we know, Americans shop-eat-bank-sleep-date-and make love in automobiles. It was only natural, therefore, that they began to see films in cars too" (Horton, 1976: 238).

    We now turn our attention to the experience of attending drive-ins during their peak decade, the 1950s. Then, we examine the impact of social, economic, and technological changes that occurred in subsequent decades.

    Privacy and comfort

    Drive-in cinemas catered to Americans who had migrated to the suburbs after World War II--mainly families with small children and teenagers. Drive-ins provided "a compromise between the giant screen, the 'going out' factor of public exhibition, and the domestic hermeticism of the private car" (Friedberg, 2002: 195). Part of the appeal was the potential for privacy and comfort, as cars were transformed into private theatre boxes (Shaw-Smith, 2009). As the following observation explains: "Drive-in theater patrons can do as they please within the dictates of decency in the privacy of their automobiles. They can shell and eat roasted peanuts, smoke, hold a normal conversation, regulate ventilation, and relax in wider and more comfortable seats with more leg room than possible in an indoor theater" (Underhill, 1950: 162).

    In the years following World War II, the privacy and family viewing experience drive-ins offered was particularly appealing to both returning veterans and civilians who "had to re-orient themselves from being part of a communal war effort to settling back down to being private citizens. In other words, the post-war period can be characterized by the overt preoccupation with privacy" (Cohen, 1994: 475).

    Family friendly entertainment and services

    Much of the appeal of drive-ins emerged from offering services that made it easier and more tempting for families to attend. These services, seldom available at indoor counterparts, included diaper and other vending machines, bottle warmers for baby formula, and even nurses in attendance (Underhill, 1950; Shaw-Smith, 2009). Durant (1950) proposes that much of the success of drive-ins at the time was attributable to being family friendly: "They are the answer to parents who want to take in the movies, but can't leave their children alone at home. No baby sitters are needed. And the kids are no bother to anyone in the audience" (25).

    Due to lower land costs, drive-in theatres were able to provide additional amenities that set them apart from competing forms of entertainment. While drive-ins of the early 1950s frequently included children's playgrounds, many were more extravagant in their offerings:

    ... exhibitors built children's play areas, with swings, slides, merry-go-rounds and pony rides. Some installed miniature railroads which hauled...

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