Drive-In Movies: The Final Curtain Call

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Drive-in movie theaters have been on their last legs in America for decades, but don’t tell that to Jim Kopp. Five years ago, Kopp, 57, decided to fulfill his dreams and jump into the business, and has since taken over operations at two drive-in theaters on the East Coast.

“I learned to love drive-ins as a child growing up in Pittsburgh. It was a big family event to go there on the weekends,” Kopp said. “I’ve always had that passion. As an adult, I even decided to photograph drive-in theaters throughout the country to record them.”

For most of his life, Kopp’s interest in drive-ins amounted to nothing more than a curious hobby that he pursued in his free time. He spent 22 years of his life working at the Library of Congress as a logistics manager in their warehouse.

Then, in 2005, he discovered a North Carolina drive-in theater was being auctioned off on eBay and bought it for just $22,000. The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater, located in the small town of Henderson, is the oldest drive-in theater in the state, and one of only a handful still in operation there. It was first opened back in 1949 with a screening of the film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Then, in 1977, the original owners decided to sell the theater to another family, who in turn sold it off in 2004. The man who bought it quickly found himself overwhelmed by the burden of running a drive-in and decided to put it up for sale on eBay.

The price was certainly a bargain, but by the time Kopp bought it, Raleigh Road was in need of some serious repairs. Over the years, Kopp estimates that he threw down $300,000 to $400,000 to repaint, fix the screen tower, add in a playground and clean up the grounds. He continued working his day job in Washington, D.C., and would commute to the theater on the weekends to run the show. On top of all that, Kopp struggled for a while to build an audience. “In our first year, a lot of folks didn’t realize that the theater was open again,” he said. Fortunately for Kopp, he earned some favorable reviews in the local press and is now proud of the fact that he had 78 cars attend a movie screening on New Year’s Eve. Of course, while this may be a good business day for a small town drive-in, it would likely be considered pitiful for most multiplexes across the country.

Even during the recession, consumers faithfully continued to drive out to their local movie theaters, helping the industry earn nearly $2 billion a year in revenue. Yet, it's likely that only a distinct minority sat in their cars to watch the show.

The first American drive-in theater opened in 1933 in Camden, N.J., a little more than a decade before the Raleigh Road opened its doors. By the 1950s, cars were ubiquitous in America and so were drive-ins. According to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, at the peak, there were approximately 5,000 drive-ins nationwide in 1958 and more than 3,000 throughout the 70s and early 80s. But by September of last year, that number had dropped to just 381 nationwide, and the closures just keep on coming.

The Bright Leaf Theatre, a 55-year-old staple in North Carolina, closed earlier this year after the couple that owned the drive-in decided it would be smarter to sell the land. And the Puget Park Drive-In in Washington, which opened in 1971, was permanently shut down to make way for a hospital.

The downfall of the drive-in can be blamed on two things: money and technology. “If the real estate is more valuable as a home site or even a parking lot… a drive-in will make way for something else,” CNN reports. “Cable television, digital video recorders, satellite dishes and Netflix are all competing for the same eyeballs.” To add insult to injury, in the past, some drive-ins have been knocked down only to be replaced by new multiplexes.

Yet, there is a silver lining to the bleak statistics. In the last decade, the number of drive-ins has hovered close to 400, only declining by about 50, despite all the press in recent years claiming that drive-ins are on the verge of extinction. (In fact, the remaining drive-ins tend to flaunt their status as the last survivors in the country, like New Jersey’s Delsea Drive-In, which boasts of being the “only” drive-in theater still open in the state.)

Part of the reason for their limited decline in recent years may be that drive-ins have mostly been purged from metropolitan areas and the ones that are left seem to be in suburbs where the value of real estate is a little lower and the future of theaters is a little more stable.

“The drive-in may have been invented in New Jersey, but the real estate there is worth too much to keep drive-in theatres in business,” said Richard Reting, 44, the owner of the Lynn Auto Drive-In Theatre, the second oldest American drive-in still in business. The Lynn theater, which is located just outside Dover, Ohio, first opened in 1935 and was purchased by Reting’s grandfather in 1977. “We’re a small drive-in with just 6 acres in a small town with a busy road. And we’re fortunate enough to be in an area where people like being outdoors and enjoy outdoor entertainment.”

For Reting, the biggest change over the years has been the kind of movies they show. “Up until the mid-90s, drive-in theaters would mostly play B-movies, but then television started airing a lot of those movies that would have gone to us,” he said. So now you’ll find more hit films like Iron Man 2. At the same time, Reting and other drive-in owners must strive to maintain what he calls “an authentic historic experience,” by ensuring that the theaters maintain a classic appearance.

Reting says that his drive-in, which has two screens with a total of 400 parking spots, tends to be close to full capacity on the weekends, especially during the summer months. Yet even his business only barely makes enough money to support itself and his family, partly because the theater must close during the winter due to bad weather. “We’re always on a budget,” he said. “Most of my family members have other jobs. My wife works at an airline but this is my primary occupation.” He used to bartend at night after work to make a little extra money, but now that he has kids, he needs to be home with them.

Similarly, Kopp, the owner of the Raleigh Road, said that whatever money they earn from the drive-in, they need to invest back into it. Kopp has since retired from his job at the Library of Congress and now works full time at Raleigh Road. “We’ve used inheritance money and a lot of our savings to support the theater,” he said. Kopp recently decided to lease another drive-in just outside of D.C., which he says is more profitable, but it’s still a tough life, partly because he and his wife constantly make the four-hour trip between the two theaters. “I like the business, but I’m tired of going up and down the highway.”

Like regular movie theaters, drive-ins make most of their revenue from concessions. “This is where the money is to be made! In fact, some drive-in owners will tell you that they are actually restaurant owners who play movies!” the UDITOA notes on their site. Many theaters also build other activities around the drive-in like flea markets and mini golf to attract more customers and increase profits. The UDITOA estimates that the entire cost of building a basic drive-in with one screen is between $300,000 and $500,000 and it will cost you even more to stock and staff the theater.

However, a growing number of movie lovers have circumvented all this in the last year or so by purchasing cheap digital projectors and opening up “guerilla drive-ins.” These drive-ins are usually very short lived and will move from parking lot to parking lot, advertising shows more covertly by word of mouth. Of course, sometimes these guerilla theaters run up against the law and are told to shut down. One could argue though that the very existence of these theaters is strong evidence that Americans still have an appetite for drive-ins.

Both Kopp and Reting believe that many of their customers see drive-ins first and foremost as a good family activity. “You can bring the dog, have all your friends and family there with you and achieve that sense of camaraderie,” Kopp said. On top of that, he argues that consumers may actually be more drawn to drive-ins now because they are cheaper than multiplexes. Tickets on average cost $5-8 for adults and $1-2 for children and are often good for a double feature. “That’s what’s really driving the industry now,” he said.

Still, Kopp is realistic about the industry’s future. “I think there’s always going to be drive-ins, but there will never be a resurgence,” he said. But that won’t stop him from enjoying the show for however long as it lasts.

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