Rise and Fall

Continuing the growth and spread of drive-ins that had begun in the late 1930s, by January of 1942, there were 95 drive-ins dispersed among 27 states (Ohio led the way with 11). However, with the U.S.'s involvement in World War II, the building of drive-ins slowed. Facing a host of problems, such as short supply of rubber for tires and gas rationing, many theaters were forced to close for as much as two years.

With the end of the war, the proliferation of drive-ins picked right back up as the number of locations went from 102 to 155 by the end of 1946. Over the following two years, this total rose to over 800. Still a strange concept to most people, some drive-ins hosted open houses during the day to show people how to park, how the sound systems worked and what food was available at the concession stands.

The Baby Boom that began after the war also contributed to growth and development of drvie-ins as they developed expanded offerings for children such as playgrounds between the front row of cars and the screen.

During the 1940s, 8 major studios controlled 95% of the films produced. These included Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, Warner Bros, MGM, RKO, Columbia, Universal and United Artists, which not only produced films, but also distributed and exhibited them. Exploiting this power, the large studios forced independent theater owners to take all of their product, regardless of quality, if they wanted to get the big features with named stars. This practice, known as "block booking," was very rough for ozoners as well independent indoor houses, and was later used as ammunition in a legal case to break up the studio monopoly in 1949. Even with this development, it did not become easy to deal with major distributors, it merely became tolerable.

During this time, drive-ins also butt heads with many of the indoor operators who regarded them with disdain. Several examples of their "outsider" status were the refusal of some newspapers to accept their advertisements and a plan by the Theater Owners of America (TOA) to ban the practice of free admission for children at drive-ins, which the group felt was cheapening the movie business.

Truly the heyday of drive-ins, the post-World War II automobile culture of the 50s helped etch their place in U.S. history. Numbers soared, growing from just under 1,000 in the late 40s to close to 5,000 by 1958. During the same years that drive-ins were being built all over the country, thousands of indoor theaters were forced to close, their numbers plummeting from 17,000 to 12,000 between 1948 and 1958. The auto-dependent suburbs were booming and Americans wanted to watch movies in their commodious cars. Industry officials touted drive-ins as film's only hope against the onslaught of television.

The quality of the presentation and the overall construction of these drive-ins varied widely. From low-budget affairs with little more than primitive wooden screens and modest projection booths, as the size and number of drive-ins increased, many grew into elaborate first-class locations with scads of amenities. Offering more than just playgrounds, there were miniature trains, pony rides, boat rides, talent shows, miniature golf courses, and animal shows. Many theaters would open their gates as much as three hours early to allow patrons, and especially children to enjoy the amenities. The spread of concession stands also increased the appeal of drive-ins, as some theaters gave customers the ability to order from their cars, with car hops making window-side deliveries.

Although the early part of the decade was great for drive-ins, as many ozoners out-grossed indoor theaters and enjoyed better profit margins, attendance began to fade in the mid-to late 60s. While there were still drive-ins being built, many began to close as business stagnated. Some of the reasons for this were the quality of the films shown, older drive-ins falling into disrepair, the popularity of television, the decline of car culture, and the rise of multiplex indoor theaters. This final reason was beginning to be recognized by major chains and studios as the future of exhibition, and while it was possible to multiplex a drive-in and there was some success in trying to make that happen, it was really not economically or technically practical. One additional reason for declining audiences was the advent of daylight savings time in 1966, which led to summer showings being pushed back as late as 9 p.m., making screenings less appealing to families.

Despite these early signs of approaching obsolescence, 1969 saw the culminating event of several flourishing decades of growth. 10,000 people packed into the Gemini Drive-In in Dallas to see the premier of "True Grit" with a personal appearance by the film's star, John Wayne. As he stood atop the concession stand and shot off his gun, the drive-in was symbolically vindicated.

The decline of drive-ins visibly began, marked by fewer and fewer families coming to the movies. Along with the deficiencies that became apparent in the 1960s, drive-ins saw a parallel shift as they gradually lost their family audience and began to show increasingly inappropriate material. With beach movies, exploitation films, and later pornography targeting teen and adult audiences instead of families, drive-ins no longer saw the need to cater to young audiences and removed many of their amusing fairground-style amenities. Despite a clear drop in patronage, there were still nearly 3,000 locations still open in 1977. Even though it became clear to many that air-conditioned theaters clearly trumped steamy summer nights, it would take a few more years before the downfall of drive-ins would truly become a reality.

"Drive-Ins are rapidly becoming part of our nostalgic past. I foresee their extinction by the end of the decade." -Sumner Redstone

This now infamous quote from the early 1980s, said by none other than the owner of National Amusements, a company that had built or bought and operated over 60 drive-ins nationwide, foresaw drive-in doom. While the decade started out fair, with over 3,000 locations still in operation, before its end, less than 1,000 remained. The aforementioned reasons for decline still took their toll, however, the advent of the VCR and cable TV dealt a punishing blow to the drive-in industry. As Hollywood entered the home, patrons no longer needed to flock to the summer hot-spots that once claimed their hearts.

Along with these technological advances that increased people's access to film cinema, the main reason for the rapid decline was the real-estate building boom that defined the 1980s and took its toll most heavily on suburban and rural locals in which drive-ins had previously reigned. What were once cow pastures in the middle of nowhere were no longer places where elaborate drive-ins could claim the land, and were instead highly desirable properties in growing suburban areas. Rising land values and taxes prompted many owners to sell to developers of housing, office complexes and shopping centers who offered millions of dollars for land that drive-in owners had paid just thousands for decades earlier. With declining wages from dwindling audiences, it was an easy decision for operators to take the money and shutdown.

1990s and Beyond
While the early 90s witnessed drive-ins drop to a low of about 750 nationwide, in the middle of the decade, something remarkable happened. The decline stabilized as some of the more dedicated and innovative owners hung on, made improvements to their locations, and weathered the seemingly fatal storm. Just when it had seemed as if the iconic U.S. entertainment form was headed for extinction, this mini-revival began, fueled by a blast of nostalgia and families tired of spending upwards of $50 to take the kids to the multiplex.

With suburban sprawl continuing to claim land, most drive-ins today, reside in smaller towns and use savvy programming to combat cultural currents working against them. Many of these drive-ins added extra screens, going twin, triple, quad and beyond. It's almost as if drive-ins were rediscovered, with crowds of families with children resembling those of the 1950s flocking in their cars to these living museums. Some owners have even had to close their gates on some summer nights because they have run out of parking spaces. While there are still drive-ins closing down, others continued to reopen, and there have even been new drive-ins built.