The first drive-ins opened in 1933, just six years after the debut of the modern "talkies." They became wildly popular during the 1950s and 1960s as Americans by the tens of millions moved to the booming suburbs. An estimated 4,000 of them once dotted the landscape and became a venue for entire families who would show up for cartoons, shorts and, quite often, double and even triple features.
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Drive-ins enhanced their appeal by adding features such as exotic cuisine, places for children to play, even concerts. And the sprawling parking lots were notorious as a place where those with romantic intentions could cuddle in relative privacy.
But by the 1970s and '80s, things started turning against the drive-in concept. Land values and rising taxes forced some to close, as did competition from mall builders and big-box retailers. The last drive-in in New Jersey shut down in 1991 and the acres of property in the town of Hazlet now serve an assortment of big and small retailers as well as a 20-screen cineplex.
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The move to multiple screens was another harsh blow, as was the introduction of enhanced theater audio systems. The classic drive-in had to compete with a tinny little speaker that could be hung from the driver's window, though some of the remaining theaters now broadcast sound into cars through FM radio signals.
But the big threat comes as the movie industry prepares to abandon the use of 35 mm film, requiring theaters to switch to digital projection systems by the end of this year. According to Honda, that changeover can cost more than $75,000 per screen.
(Read more: American drive-in movie theaters)