Orange Drive-In Theatre, photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pandemic rewinds cinemagoers back to the drive-in

In the early 1930s Richard Hollingshead, a car-parts salesman, had an idea. He’d heard his mother moan about how uncomfortable she found the wooden seats in cinemas. What if she could watch a film from the comfort of her car?

Nostalgic retro cinema, Universal Studios, Florida. Photo: Pixabay
Nostalgic retro cinema, Universal Studios, Florida. Photo: Pixabay

To test the concept in his driveway, he put a film projector on the hood of his car, hung a sheet from some trees and invited his neighbours. He patented the idea and in June 1933 opened his first drive-in cinema – he called it a “park-in theatre” – near Camden, New Jersey. His clever ramp system positioned cars at slightly different heights, to ensure that everyone had a good view of the screen. Tickets cost 25 cents for each person and each car.

His invention, declared Hollingshead, “virtually transforms an ordinary motor car into a private theatre box”. But the idea was slow to take off. By 1945 there were only 96 drive-ins in America. Everything changed in 1949 when Hollingshead’s patent was overturned, allowing other entrepreneurs to open drive-ins without having to pay him royalties. The development of an in-car speaker, which could be clipped to a car window, helped by ensuring good sound quality and perfect synchronisation with the on-screen image, even for those at the back. The number of drive-ins in America jumped to 2,000 by 1950 and more than 4,000 by 1958.

Unlike indoor cinemas, drive-ins could operate only when it was dark, otherwise the projected image was difficult to see. This, coupled with the privacy afforded by cars, made drive-ins ideal date venues for amorous teenagers.

Hollywood studios saw drive-ins as a threat to their own theatre chains and withheld their best films, claiming that they would be cheapened by outdoor screenings. So drive-ins mostly had to make do with re-runs and cheesy B-movies. For many customers, however, the quality of the film was of secondary importance. Press coverage denounced drive-ins as “passion pits”, which only heightened their popularity among frisky teens. They were also attractive to families, providing a cheap night out without the need for a babysitter, because children could sleep in the car.

Drive-in cinemas went into decline in the late 1950s as shopping malls sprang up in American suburbs. The space occupied by drive-ins was more valuable to property developers as a location for daytime shopping, rather than just showing films in the evening. Besides, more and more people had televisions at home.

The few hundred remaining drive-ins have experienced an unexpected renaissance in 2020 as social-distancing requirements forced indoor cinemas to close. Some have been laying on extra screenings, and new pop-up drive-ins have been created to meet demand. In a neat reversal of history, 160 Walmart parking lots were turned into temporary drive-ins this summer…

… visit The Economist to read full story

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