Are Drive-ins Dead?

Recently ranked as the second most recognisable icon of the twentieth century (behind the Rubix Cube!), the drive-in theatre may well become an icon of the twenty first century as well.

Whilst drive-in theatres will never again occupy 20 acre tracts of land in the huge numbers of the 1950’s and 1960’s, there is a place for them now and into the future. Whether it is a trip back to the fond nostalgia of our childhood or a discovery for a new generation the drive-in is still relevant and competitive as a motion picture entertainment venue.

Drive-in mania hits small town Australia, can you spot BOTH of them? Mildura, Victoria 1960’s

At the dawn of the new millenium picture and sound technology have passed the drive-in by, but as a total movie experience nothing beats the drive-in. As we say in the business “you can drink, you can smoke, you can even slash the seats!” Group interaction with the action on the screen still occurs through the obligatory blasts of car horns and flashes of headlights, yet intimacy is maintained within the fogged up windows of the vehicle.

Drive-ins are one of many forms in which the cinema exhibition industry has reinvented itself in the last century. From converted live theatres, to purpose built downtown palaces, the art deco suburban or neighbourhood theatres of the ’30’s – ’50’s, then the twins and finally todays multiplexes and megaplexes. The drive-in’s heyday lay somewhere between the suburban hardtops and the first multi-screen venues.

In the main drive-in markets, Australia, US and Canada, numbers peaked in the 1958 – 1972 era. With any boom a bust must come and the slow decline set in with the 1970’s. Many factors contributed to the closure of thousands of ozoners, but two factors brought the greatest havoc, the VCR and high land values. The VCR destroyed overnight the market for second run and revival product, long the bread and butter of the drive-in.

What was once cheap outer suburban land on the fringes of towns and cities soon became future shopping centres and housing estates. The multiplex boom that continues today also convinced exhibitors to move capital back into more profitable indoor theatres. The closure and sale of a moderately profitable drive-in could finance the construction of an indoor venue that could realise ten times the revenue of the drive-in. Many drive-ins that have closed since the late 1980s have been worthwhile ventures, but a small trading surplus is peanuts compared to land worth ten million dollars.

We will never again see the proliferation of outdoor theatres contributing a large percentage of box-office revenue, but the 700-odd drive-ins worldwide will continue to entertain patrons and will become an icon of any era in which they survive.