Watching a movie on a big screen under the stars on a summer night, while comfortably lounging in your iconic classic car, sounds rather romantic and relaxing. We may be thinking the same thing right now: a drive-in movie theatre.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, open-air theatres have successfully made their comeback. Besides, the warm weather makes it perfect for the whole outdoor experience, especially as we still can’t get back to traditional brick-and-mortar movie theatres. And let’s agree, watching movies at home is not the same.

But what is the history of the drive-in theatres and why they lost popularity for a while? Join me in this post as I will shed some light on the evolution of this creative business model.

Who invented the drive-in movie theater?

The idea originated in New Jersey, in Richard Hollingshead’s backyard. His mother, who frequently complained about uncomfortable movie theatre seats, one day joked about watching a movie in their car instead.

Hollingshead took this idea literally and began experimenting with screen projectors and sound in his backyard. After several attempts, in 1933, he received the patent for “Automobile Movie Theatre.” And so the first drive-in theatre in NJ was born. The first movie premiered at Hollingshead’s drive-in was “Wives Beware.” Patrons could enjoy it for 25 cents.

By the 50s, there were more than 4000 drive-in theaters in the US only. As this spontaneous idea turned out to be a success, it was replicated in other places too. In just a couple of decades, it took Europe by storm. In the 60s, the French were especially fond of the drive-in movie experience.

What first sprouted as a simple joke, transformed into a good business model. With time, it also incorporated concessions, as movie watchers were eagerly spending money on snacks to pair with screenings. This is what I truly call entrepreneurial initiative!

Why did drive-in movie theaters lose popularity?

Sometimes, no matter how good a business idea is, the circumstances make it difficult for it to thrive. The developments in the real estate and automotive sectors severely impacted the drive-in theatres. As the land began to increase in value due to rapid urbanization, owners of the drive-in venues parted with their businesses in exchange for profit. From a practical standpoint, it was a cold, but rational business investment decision.

Moreover, the oil crises of the 70s led to the production of smaller and more fuel-efficient cars, which lacked the space and comfort of bigger vehicles. The “bad luck” for drive-ins does not end here, though. Simultaneously, the birth of VCR and the development of sound systems made it all too tempting for people to just rent a tape and enjoy a movie at home. At least then, it just seemed like a better option. All these factors led to the rapid demise of the drive-in cinema. Actually, as of October 2019, there were only around 300 drive-in venues remaining in the US.

Where does the drive-in cinema stand today?

Social distancing protocols have inspired the return of drive-in movie theatres all across the US. New venues have been popping up in New York, Texas, Illinois, Idaho, Georgia, Michigan, as well as in other states. This past August, Walmart also started its own chain of drive-ins in some of its parking lots, at no cost to viewers.

So, I dare to say that the drive-in cinema may be salving the whole movie screening industry. Now that people are wearing masks and keeping their distance by staying in cars, watching movies in nature has taken a whole different dimension. The acoustics is better than before, and the screens can be bigger and brighter, transmitting even the latest HD quality movies. What a natural, yet modern comeback!

What is the future of the drive-in cinema?

When Hollingshead initially advertised the whole concept, his slogan was: “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are”. I think that the statement is appealing even today. Watching a movie is one of those activities that bring families together, and hopefully, distract them from all the anxieties of the world.

Also, the drive-in cinema offers a romantic experience for couples, who can enjoy more intimacy than in a regular indoor movie theatre.

As a symbol of harmony and togetherness, but also safety, I believe that drive-in theatres are here to stay this time.

As new generations become more acquainted with open-air cinema, the experience may stay way beyond the pandemic. Moreover, with the new food delivery apps and easy online booking experience, there is potential to make this business model economically worth it for investors.

Yes, definitely the drive-in cinema is here to stay! So, what are you waiting for? Grab your car keys and drive in the open, towards a refreshing outdoor movie experience.


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