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Drive-in Movies in US Still Draw Crowds

  • June Soh

Drive-in movie theaters were once a vibrant part of American culture. The outdoor theaters with huge screens reached their peak in the late 1950s with more than 4,000 of them across the US. These days it's tough to find one. However, some drive-ins still bring in big crowds just like the old days.

Cars line up at the entrance to the Family Drive-In Theater in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. It's about 130 kilometers from Washington, D.C., where ticket attendant still great visitors cheerfully.

Shannon Scott and her family, like many others, arrived here more than two hours before the scheduled show.

“You get the ambiance, you get the fun concession stand," Scott said. "You get to wait for the dark so there is family time together.”

Since her family discovered Family Drive-In three years ago, Scott said they have often made the hour and a half drive to enjoy two movies for less than the price of one where she lives.

“It's a beautiful drive," she said. "It is worth it to come here all the time. We love it."

The first drive-in opened in the eastern U.S. state of New Jersey in 1933. By 1958, there were 4,000 in the United States. They began to disappear rapidly in the 1970s and 80s. Today, fewer than 400 are still operating.

Jim Kopp owns Family Drive-in.

“The drive-ins were built on the edge of towns," he said. "And as the towns were expanded, the price of land started to go higher. The land was more valuable than the business. So a lot of drive-ins lost to the townhouse developments and the retail developments.”

In the early years, drive-ins were a popular date destination. Now they mostly attract families. Kopp's theater even has a playground where children can play before the movies start.

Fifteen members of Fred Cunliffe's family drove from Texas, North Carolina and other parts of Virginia for a show.

"It is something that we used to do as kids with my parents," he said. "So we decided it will be a really nice family event to come to the drive-in and let the kids get to see everything going on.”

Some nearby hotels now offer special rates for people who drive in.

"We have had a lot of guests that come from very far and wide to see the drive in theater," said James Revere, from the Holiday Inn Express.

Family Drive-In can fit up to 500 cars on its lot and plays new releases on its two screens. On a good night, Kopp says, he may sell as many as 1500 tickets.

“Majority of movie ticket sales goes to the studios for a film rental. They take up to 70 percent of the box office takes," said Kopp.

So the theater maintains itself through the sale of food and drink. And there's a new challenge. Drive-ins will have to convert to digital projection by the end of the year, when movie studios stop distributing 35 millimeter films.

“Seventy thousand dollars per projector, so for my theater, it is 140 thousand dollars’ worth of debt that I have to take on to go to digital," Kopp said.

Some drive-ins may not survive. Yet fans hope to enjoy movies under the stars for years to come.
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