Quick fact – the first horror film I ever saw was Friday the 13th at the drive-in. We’re talking 1980 kids, so this is way back when I was six. Now, when I say I ‘saw’ it I mean that I heard it and saw the end and was freaked the heck out. The second feature, I think, was Pieces, though I cannot guarantee it. From what I heard (I wasn’t allowed to really watch the movies, having been taken by a cousin and my sister and someone else) it seems right, but who can say? That was my first experience with the drive-in, and far from my last.
Man do I love drive-ins.
There is strange magic at work at a drive-in, magic that we are losing, year by year, and there’s little it seems we can do to stop that. You see, once upon a time the drive-in was a place where families could spend an affordable night out together and could spend time together outdoors with their neighbors. Once upon a time the drive-in was the top of the pops – you got two movies, some cartoons maybe, a stocked snack bar, and a playground for the kids. Oh, and if you were a little older then the drive-in was the perfect place to take a date for a long night of backseat wrestling. It’s hard to appreciate it now but in the fifties, this was as good as it got for many people. Sure, traditional theaters were great places but there was just that magic of the drive-in, and there was nothing to compare. Things changed over time and slowly but surely the drive-in died out. Weather, technology, and the ever changing public opinion just made it less and less attractive to visit the places. It didn’t help that the drive-in was a perfect place for less pleasant people out to get a little drunk, a little stoned, and cause a little trouble. Drive-ins became sketchier, older, and more run down and the owners started to not spend a much money or time on keeping their properties up and it became a perfect storm for failure. Now, the idea of hitting a drive-in seems ridiculous. It’s easier to go to a megaplex, sit in comfortable seats, have a wide variety of snacks, and it’s less of a time investment. The thing is though that there’s still that magic at the drive-ins that remain, a magic that hasn’t left, but is fading fast.
Where I live, in Flint, Michigan, we have one surviving drive-in left in our area. There were two up until two years ago and then none, but some brave souls bought one of the two and re-opened it, being so bold to even add a third screen. I couldn’t have been happier. Drive-ins are a part of Americana, and a part of the dream America that so many people have, that I hate to see them fade away forever. As great as our local drive-in is – and it is pretty boss, it has epic popcorn, and last year for Halloween they had a haunted house and were showing scary movies, which was pretty boss – I am desperately afraid that it won’t last. Too many drive-ins get stuck in the mentality of old, trying to compete with the megaplexes and trying to stay up with the hottest movies, and that’s fine, to a degree, but they cannot survive that way. They have to differentiate themselves and think outside the box. Does that mean you play only cult and classic movies? Heck no. You have to have the big movies for the average family or the people wanting to just take in a show, but you have to also remember that it will always be more attractive to go to the megaplex. You have to offer an evening, an experience, a memory. You have to think outside the box if you are going to survive.
So what does it mean?
It means offering movies that other places aren’t – some classics or cult movies, to be sure. Maybe not always but once in a while. Get the right movies, and advertise, and make it an event, you will pack the place.
Better food selection. People can pig the heck out at a drive-in, so let them. Offer more food and drinks than the average. Maybe set up a small restaurant/cafe.
Keep families in mind. Have a safe playground, with lighting…in the back. That way kids can be loud and have fun, and not be in people’s line of sight. Have picnic tables for families. Make sure you show features that families can attend from time to time.
Embrace the colleges. If you are blessed with colleges, then try to do college nights. Or any sort of discount nights. You want the people there. You may lose some money at the box office but you make it up on concessions.
Invest in good equipment. Maybe it’s better speakers, or a good radio signal, or good projectors, just do the minimum to offer a watchable movie.
I don’t own a drive-in, so I don’t know how hard it is to run one. Completely, utterly true. It has to be scary, and expensive, and frustrating to say the least but really, if you are not in it for the love of the drive-ins themselves then you are in the wrong business. But I know drive-ins. I know what they were, are, and what they can be. I know that there is still a soft spot for them in all our hearts. And I know that they can survive, if they try. If they stop trying to be the megaplexes. The drive-in offers a more meaningful and intimate experience that is less about the movies on the screen and more about the way you experience them. This year I celebrated my birthday at the drive-in, and the movies were lame, but the friends were great, the atmosphere was amazing, and the popcorn, brother, the popcorn was epic. We all deserve to have that experience every once in a while. Here’s hoping we get that chance.