Drive-in movie theaters are often thought of as relics from times gone by. But while it's true that the real estate drive-ins occupy are often more valuable than the business, many theaters are hanging tough. The past decade has even seen some new theaters built.
Make no mistake, though. The industry, like many small businesses, faces challenges. The number of screens has declined from more than 4,000 in the 1960s to 366 today. Skyrocketing real-estate values tempted many owners to sell out to commercial developers.
And now, the 21st-century is providing drive-in theater owners with a new challenge: digital projection.
The United Drive-In Theater Owners Association expects that within the next two years, movie studios will stop distributing films domestically in 35mm celluloid prints, forcing theater owners everywhere—not just those running drive-ins—to convert to digital projectors or shut down. While digital delivery of a new release will cut down dramatically on studios’ printing and distribution costs, it will increase expenses for theater owners: They will have to pay between $60,000 to $85,000 to upgrade each screen.
The good news is that many are prepared to battle it out. “People who run drive-in theaters in the 21st century are never dull, and their stories are all unique,” said photographer Carl Weese, who has been documenting drive-ins for more than a decade.
What will it take for drive-ins to, as the joke goes, not have to sell out to Wal-Mart? Here are 10 theaters that are re-inventing themselves for the future.
By Regina Hing, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 4 June 2012
Location: Midland, Texas
Big Sky's owners recently discovered something: a lot of people like watching football on a giant, 45 x 90 foot screen. And although Big Sky is not allowed to charge people for screening NFL games, the theater, the first in the country to go digital, is proving that a wide range of entertainment helps breed customer loyalty.
“You can do all sorts of things with digital [projectors]. I think this is the best time we’ve had in a long, long time for drive-ins,” said Big Sky co-owner Sam Kirkland.
Kirkland and his partner, Skeet Noret, built and opened the drive-in in October 2005 with two screens, then added a third in 2007. Combined, the three sites can accommodate up to 1,100 cars and are open seven days a week. Wednesday nights are Poor Boy Nights, when adult tickets cost just $4, and kids get in for $3.
Location: Guymon, Okla.
Built in 1960 and closed in the early '80s, this 175-car drive-in sat vacant until husband-and-wife team Eric and Alka Lammes purchased the business in 2008. When the drive-in reopened in 2009, it lived up to its ‘new and improved’ promise.
There is now a sizeable playground with inflatable bouncers and vintage equipment with a carousel that, according to Eric, is a lot sturdier than the plastic ones commonly used today. An arcade for older children occupies one corner.
The Lammeses also opened an adjacent RV park, where visitors have free access to the Internet as well as laundry and shower facilities. But they still have to pay if they want to watch a movie.) The menu also features an extensive range of home-cooked food, some of which include herbs Alka grew herself.
“These days, it has to be about more than just the movie,” says Eric. “We’re definitely here for the long haul.”
Location: Liberty Center, Ohio
Rod Saunders, a public school teacher, and his wife Donna, an IT professional, wanted to open a side business that would help them put their three children through school, as well as give the kids something to do during summer vacation.
They wanted to open a drive-in, but couldn’t find a location – until a colleague of Rod’s suggested they put it in their backyard. The result is the Field of Dreams Drive-In, conveniently located in the Saunders’ 4.5-acre backyard on Henry County Road 6 in Liberty Center, Ohio.
Field of Dreams is among a handful of drive-ins that allow patrons to purchase tickets online – you can even choose your parking spot. The couple also recently installed a mini-golf area. “The key for us has been that we listen very closely to what our customers are saying. We work very hard to make it appealing for them to come,” says Rod.
Location: Baltimore, Md.
“Nobody ever came into this business wanting to make tons of money,” says owner D. Edward Vogel, who took over the theater from his parents in 1988. “You have to really love it.” Open since 1956, Bengie’s boasts the biggest movie screen in the U.S. — 52 feet high and 120 feet wide. In the summer, Vogel screens up to three films a night. Adults pay between $5 to $9, depending on the movie, while child admission is a standard $4.
As secretary of the UDITOA, Vogel has been helping other owners adapt to more modern ways of doing business. He has continually expanded the snack bar and offers a plethora of Bengie’s-branded merchandise on its website, including caps and T-shirts. “We will probably have fewer drive-ins in the future, but the ones who stick around will provide a better experience than before,” said Vogel.
Location: Vineland, N.J.
Here’s a new take on the usual movie-theater fare: The Delsea offers an extensive menu that includes healthy options such as veggie burgers, shrimp kebabs, and even Atkins-approved snacks.
The food is a direct result of owner John DeLeonardis's day job as a pediatrician. DeLeonardis initially bought the closed-down drive-in to turn it into a skate park with the idea of giving kids a place to exercise. But he changed course after seeing that the movie screen the previous owner left behind was still in good shape.
The Delsea is now the only drive-in left in New Jersey, where Richard Hollingshead Jr. opened the nation’s first drive-in theater, in Camden, in 1933. John and his wife, Jude, recently installed solar panels that will eventually provide all the drive-in’s energy needs. “Nostalgia will get people to come at least once, but only a good experience will keep them coming back,” says DeLeonardis.
Location: Orefield, Pa.
The oldest surviving drive-in in America, Shankweiler’s has been through it all: a hurricane that tore the place down in 1955; drive-ins fighting with film distributors to screen first-run releases, not just old B movies; and the invention of FM radio broadcasting, which enabled sound to be broadcast over a car radio, replacing loudspeakers.
Shankweiler’s has been kept as true to its original, 1934 state as possible by Paul and Susan Geissinger, who took over the business in 1984. Admission is $9 for double features; kids ages 3 to 12 pay only $5. Fans seem to appreciate the blend of old and new: they follow Shankweiler’s on Twitter to get the latest schedule, but are transported to a different time and place once there.
“People will drive a couple of hundred miles to get to America’s oldest drive-in. For a lot of families, it’s an outing, an event, a piece of Americana that everyone can enjoy,” said Paul.
Location: Chetek, Wisc.
For owner Paul Javener, drive-in theaters these days resemble fairs more than movie theaters – except for one difference. “People at fairs are used to being charged [high prices] for food,” said Javener. “We figured if we kept our prices low, that would keep them coming back.”
So far, so good. Javener estimates that the Stardust has increased attendance by at least 10 percent each year since its 2007 opening. It has two screens, and can pack in nearly 360 cars a night.
What to do between the double feature? The recently built Toddler Town play area and arcade room that doubles as a candy shop ensure that the kids are never bored.
Location: Lakeland, Fla.
The Silver Moon Drive-in opened on April 14, 1948 with the film “Up Goes Maizie” starring Ann Sothern and George Murphy. Tickets were 35 cents and included a short cartoon. Admission has remained easy on the pocket at just $4 for ages 9 and up, and a mere $1 for kids ages 4 to 9, both for double features.
The Florida weather permits the Silver Moon to be open year-round – and as a bonus, on Saturdays and Sundays the theater grounds are transformed into the Swap Shop, a bustling market where neighbors come to sell and exchange antiques, tools, clothes and produce. It may be the last remaining drive-in theater in Polk County, says owner Harold Spears, but, “I think certainly the drive-in business is here to stay.”
Location: Hadensville, Va.
Two things immediately set owners John Heidel and his wife Kristina apart: 1) They had never worked for a drive-in prior to opening Goochland in Hadensville, Va. in 2009, and 2) they built the place from scratch. “I don’t want to sound like Kevin Costner, but we had a gut feeling that if we built it, people would come,” said John.
As parents of a newborn and a toddler, the Heidels were inspired to open the theater after experiencing a frustrating lack of affordable, family-friendly entertainment. Open from April to October, Goochland accommodates up to 340 cars and has set an example for how old-school businesses can use technology to bring in new customers: Its Facebook page has nearly 20,000 fans.
“Social media has given us a good way to keep that loyal fan base engaged year round,” said John.
Location: Fulton, N.Y.
Known for its $7 triple features every weekend, the Midway drive-in has made a name for itself as a value-for-money destination.
“We have some customers who, if they miss a weekend, will come and explain to me why they weren’t there,” says owner John Nagelschmidt. “They feel like they belong here.” Built in 1948, the theater was bought by Nagelschmidt in 1987 – who by then had worked there for 20 years and knew the business inside out.
Nagelschmidt has kept the place largely unchanged, focusing his efforts on online marketing. The Midway has an active Facebook page and a mailing list of 4,000, through which they push out special promos, schedules and emergency notices. Being in upstate New York, the main building once got buried under snow after a particularly harsh winter, delaying the theater’s opening while repairs were made.