What Happened to the Drive-Ins?

Drive-ins reached their peak in 1958. That year, exactly 4,063 theaters opened their gates at the start of the summer season; 25% of movies seen in the United States were watched through the windshield of a car. So, what happened? Where did they go?

The answer is a little dissatisfying.

No one thing killed the drive-ins. A few contributing factors slowly chipped away at their popularity in the 1970s and 80s until only a few hundred remained. These are some of the major ones:

Super Skyway Drive-In theater advertisement (Aug 13, 1954  Morning Call , Allentown PA)

Super Skyway Drive-In theater advertisement (Aug 13, 1954 Morning Call, Allentown PA)

Daylight Savings Time:  A minor inconvenience for most of us, the widespread adoption of daylight savings time in the late 1960s is often cited as the beginning of the end for drive-ins.

When Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966, which “standardized the start and end dates for daylight saving time,” all but a few states agreed to “spring forward and fall back” every year (previously, the light saving measure had only been used nationally during wartime). This exacerbated an existing problem for drive-in operators.

In the summer, when sunlight naturally stretches longer into the evening, drive-in operators pushed back showtimes to make sure the sky was dark enough to see the screen. Daylight savings time meant that an 8pm or 9pm start time became a 9pm or 10pm start time and the family-centered drive-ins lost customers to the change. A 10 o’clock movie was simply past too many bedtimes.

VCR: Convenience had always been a part of the drive-in appeal. You could take the whole family without worrying about your kids ruining the show, didn’t need to dress up, you could grab dinner at the concession stand, and you could hide within the privacy of your own car. VCR tapes and rental serves offered an even more convenient movie-going experience. A living room proved more comfortable, private, and family friendly than the drive-in—just order in a pizza and make sure to rewind the tape at the end.

Cost of Land: Drive-ins could have fought off the effects of late-night showings and home theaters, but they could not survive a booming real estate market.

Originally, drive-in theaters sprung up on the outskirts of America’s growing suburbs. The land was cheap, the sky unpolluted by light, and their clientele—the baby-boomers and their parents—lived within a short car ride. But those original suburbs grew into towns in their own rights and the former outskirts became prime land for development. Drive-in owners could make far more money selling their land then they could hope to make off their ticket sales and concession stand profit. So, they sold, and many of those 4,063 drive-ins that opened in 1958 became strip malls and subdivisions.

Digital Technology: Theaters that made it into the twenty-first century faced another problem: digital conversion. Film distribution companies demanded that all theaters buy new, digital projectors to replace their old film projectors. For a typical multiplex chain, this change didn’t make a huge impact, but the overwhelming majority of drive-ins are family owned, private businesses—they couldn’t afford the $60,000-70,000-dollar switch. For some theaters, digital came as the nail in their coffin.

The marquee of the Moonlite Theatre in Abingdon, VA. Circa mid-2015

The marquee of the Moonlite Theatre in Abingdon, VA. Circa mid-2015

The Future of Drive-Ins:

For the remaining drive-ins, the future is not all bleak. Some say we’re living in a drive-in renaissance. Keep an eye out for a future blog post on the future of drive-in theaters.