All across the United States, large patches of land that sat empty for decades found a renewed sense of purpose in 2020. Drive-in movie theaters haven't held a preeminent place in American culture since the 1970s, but in the shadow of a global pandemic that has shuttered indoor movie theaters around the world, the idea of pulling up to a giant screen from the safety of your own personal automobile became far more appealing than it was at the turn of the century.
But what was it that doomed the drive-in in the first place? This is the history of the drive-in movie, the decline of the drive-in, and a look at what could be its future.
The development of the drive-in theater was less a business endeavor and more a personal mission. Outdoor movies existed all throughout the 1910s and 1920s, but the concept wouldn't be patented until 1932, when Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. applied for ownership of the exhibition format in New Jersey. Hollingshead developed ramps that would allow all cars an equally satisfactory vantage point to see the large outdoor movie screen and speakers to pump audio into cars without lags and delays.
Why did Hollingshead, a general manager at an auto parts dealer, make drive-in movies his passion project? Legend has it that it was because his mother was too large to sit in the standard movie theater seat, and he dreamed of developing a way for her to see films in the same relative comfort everyone else could enjoy. Hollingshead's first attempt at the drive-in concept was simple: putting his mother in a car and projecting a film on two bed sheets tied to a tree. His work became increasingly more sophisticated, to the point where he opened a drive-in theater in Pennsauken Township, NJ.
As talking pictures took over Hollywood, audio issues had to be solved. Hollingshead's early attempts at drive-ins had speakers mounted in front of the screen, but this made it difficult for patrons further back in the venue to hear the movie thanks to decreased sound clarity and the relatively slow speed it took the sound to travel compared to the light of the projection.
In 1941, RCA developed in-car speakers to remedy this issue. Later on, audio tracks broadcast over radio frequencies made the task of syncing sound for everyone, regardless of distance from the screen, a possibility. All you'd have to do is tune in to the correct station to hear a broadcast of the sound for the movie being shown that night. From there, the drive-in concept took off, giving 20th-century Americans a convenient night on the town.
Attendance still lagged behind traditional movie theaters, and Hollingshead was forced to sell his first drive-in in 1936, only three years after he opened. Societal and economic conditions contributed to the difficulty of drive-ins catching on. Automobile usage was a luxury thanks to the onset of the Great Depression and the eventual resource rationing of WWII. Metal, rubber, and other elements of the automobile were needed for the army, which meant auto manufacturing plants were repurposed for military application. Civilian production of cars ended in 1942 and would not resume until 1945.
Following WWII, the United States enjoyed a much-publicized baby boom in which families reunited and had children in significant numbers. A rise in the number of families with young kids meant a perpetual need for cheap, casual, easy entertainment. Prior to the mass adoption of home television sets, that meant a night out at the movies.
But indoor movie houses were far more posh activities at that time. Plus, an indoor movie meant a struggle for families with infants and toddlers who needed more attention. Drive-ins were perfect entertainment for the baby-boom generation, because it allowed harried parents to keep their children inside the safety and privacy of their automobiles. In some cases, patrons would show up in pajamas rather than the suits, ties, and dresses one might see at a sporting event or indoor movie.
What caused the decline of drive-in movie theaters? Well, whatever convenience might have powered the expansion of the drive-in movie theater system started to evaporate by the 1970s. A gas crisis threatened the automobile industry, which severely curtailed the use of cars. Television sets had penetrated the vast majority of American homes, making it easier to entertain yourself and your family from the comfort of the couch.
And crucially, as America's small towns expanded, they often bumped up against the remote, isolated drive-in locations in the suburban hinterlands. As those areas urbanized, that made the value of open land skyrocket. Real estate prices soared, making rent more and more expensive. That meant the cost of operating a drive-in went up and, simultaneously, the revenue generated went down. It was a perfect storm of bad business conditions, meaning drive-ins closed all over the country. By the late 1980s, there were fewer than 200 drive-in theaters left in the United States.
While drive-ins were shuttering and being turned into flea markets, swap meets, housing developments, and parking lots, indoor theatergoing went through one of the most rapid periods of expansion and innovation in the medium's history. The late 1970s and 1980s saw the arrival of the summer blockbuster, thanks to the unprecedented success of high-concept thrill rides like Jaws, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Single-screen movie palaces gave way to the multiplex, which could show numerous titles on different screens simultaneously.
Moviegoing became attached at the hip with other forms of conspicuous consumption. Multiplexes were constructed in conjunction with shopping centers or, in some cases, built inside indoor shopping malls. The Beverly Center in West Hollywood, CA, was one of the first multiplexes to be built inside a mall, boasting the largest number of movie screens under one roof when it opened in 1982.
American consumer habits changed, and the movies changed with them.