Drive-Ins Are Having Their Moment, but They Can’t Save Theaters

Decades ago, drive-ins defined the summer movie. Today, they're seeing a surge — but it's no cure for industry woes.
In this photo made, movie-goers watch How to Train Your Dragon 2, the first movie of a double feature at the Saco Drive-In in Saco, Maine. Drive-in movie theater operators say more than 200 of the remaining 348 drive-ins in the country have made the costly switch from film to digitalDigital Drive Ins, Saco, USA
Moviegoers watch "How to Train Your Dragon 2" at a drive-in theater.
Robert F Bukaty/AP/Shutterstock

Prior to the pandemic, most of us hadn’t thought much about drive-in theaters for years. We likely didn’t have much sense of how many people still went to them, or how many even still exist. Today, of course, their existence has been reconfirmed and their utility affirmed. For the last two months, in fact, they’ve been leading exhibition.

Of the 300 drive-in theaters across America, more than 100 are open for business. And even now, as some brick-and-mortar theaters are sputtering to life, drive-ins outgross nearly all indoor locations. They’re doing their best business in years, with near-capacity shows throughout the week. They aren’t even showing new movies: most of what they’re projecting is either a revival title or also available on VOD.

So it’s natural to wonder, as studios start releasing new movies like “Tenet” and “Mulan” — when many moviegoers are still afraid of clustering indoors — could outdoor cinemas lead a rebound?

Not so fast.

While the virus still circulates, and polls suggest that moviegoers are hesitant to return to theaters, this drive-in spike is happening within a vacuum. For the moment, it’s one of the few options for entertainment outside the home.

With half of the nation’s drive-ins yet to reopen (different local shelter-in-place rules apply state by state), there are approximately domestic 300 drive-ins. Most these days have multiple screens (three-to-six is the norm, though some have one or two examples, with some up to nine). That’s out of about 6,000 total theater complexes in the U.S./Canada, or about 5% of the total.

(Numbers trackers should note that most drive-ins usually play two titles per screen, which means that the actual grosses per title are about half of what is reported, so beware of the figures you see.)

At their peak, in the late 1950s, more than 4,000 drive-ins operated in North America. Numbers are inexact for 2019, but sources suggest that out of the $11 billion total box office, drive-ins accounted for about 1 percent of the take.

The backstory

Back in 1933 the first drive-in opened: the Park-In Theaters in Camden, New Jersey. Outdoor cinemas found a post-war boom when families moved to the suburbs and car culture was in full swing. Drive-ins ran top first-run films until the mid-1970s, usually genre fare, as double features. The term “summer movie” became prevalent after 1975’s “Jaws” (a perfect drive-in movie) and came to mean a mass-audience blockbuster with high entertainment value. Drive-in suppliers included companies like AIP and New World’s menu of horror, beach movies, motorcycle gang pictures, and action fare such as war movies and westerns.

“Jaws”Courtesy of Everett Collection

But drive-ins always had their limits. By the 1980s, the survivors had usually added at least a second screen, and began playing more general releases from the start of their release, though favoring action over comedies or more adult-oriented films. And the studios had mostly taken over the kind of films previously released by independents.

Drive-ins always face a range of issues. In most of the country, they were not open year-round, but were seasonal (April-October, often weekends-only). They were dictated by sunset hours (drive-in operators were always foes of daylight savings time, along with variable sunsets in summer that regionally could be as late as 9 p.m.). As indoor cinemas upgraded their sound and visual presentations in order to compete with home viewing, the drive-in experience lagged further behind. A more recent challenge has been the cost of converting to digital projection, around $70,000 per screen, that made little sense for many lower-grossing locations.

Future prospects

Looking into the post-pandemic future, what’s possible for the pumped up drive-in market? The economic reality that led to drive-ins in the first place no longer exists: vacant land to build multiple large screens and parking for hundreds of cars, as a long-term leasing prospect along with the capital investment involved, is a leap of faith. Yes, with an economic downturn, shopping malls failing, and clear signs of some people wanting to return to safe movie watching, there could be some attempts to create pop-up drive-ins. Expect some entrepreneurial ingenuity.

But when indoor theaters open up, will drive-ins continue to draw? (The closer we get to fall, fewer will be open.) Even if everything went right for drive-ins, and they were able to deliver three times as much business as before the shutdowns, that would be perhaps $300 million gross annually. Throw in some makeshift enterprises, maybe $100 million more.

Even as an alternative to the burgeoning VOD and streaming markets, it’s a drop in the bucket. No serious top exhibitor will leap on board. They have hundreds of millions invested in brick-and-mortar properties, including long-term leases they cannot escape. That has to be their ongoing first emphasis. And to whatever extent the studios work to return to the traditional model, it will be with this model.

“Scoob!”Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Case in point: Warner Bros. released “Scoob!” to premium VOD last Friday. But they did not make it available to open drive-ins (or the much smaller-grossing indoor cinemas) even though “Trolls World Tour” has been their biggest-grossing title. “Scoob!” might have grossed another $1-2 million so far. For whatever reason, that small gross didn’t matter to Warners. When wide releases resume, the studio will include outdoor theaters. But as an option when most theaters overall aren’t running, they didn’t bother. That speaks volumes.

The excitement over drive-ins, based on results in a dark period, shows that interest in movies is alive. But they are not a viable option to save the long-term theatrical model. There’s little certainty that drive-ins will continue to score the same numbers when they don’t stand alone. Also, their great success playing films day-and-date with home viewing says very little about a key issue that remains unresolved between studios and the big chains.

Drive-ins are a great story for the moment. But not remotely a business model.

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