This week’s lecture in CraveOnline’s Free Film School (a school that was voted eight times better than USC and ten times better than NYU by a panel of hostages) will be less of a lecture and more of an outright love letter. Today we will be looking at a form of film presentation that is still alive and well in this county, but is rarely mentioned anymore. Today we will be taking loving look at the age-old institution of the drive-in movie theater, its blissful offering to cineastes, and how it, in its own small and subtle way, shaped the way films were made. I’ll also be frothing about how much I love drive-in movies, and will plea with you, perhaps obnoxiously, to attend a drive-in movie if you can.
For the poor, poor souls who aren’t familiar with the notion of a drive-in movie (and surely there are some kids out there who don’t know what they are, or at least who haven’t been), I’ll give a brief rundown: A drive-in movie is essentially a huge outdoor lot with numbered parking spots where cars drive in, park in rows, all facing a huge movie screen, and watch a movie without leaving the comfort of their vehicles. The weather, of course, has to be nice. Sound has been handled in various ways over the years. You can sit on your car, eat in your car, or have sex in the back of your van, all while watching the movie. Neat, right?
In past Free Film School lectures, I’ve commented on certain technicals of the film industry (read my lecture on, of all things, The Steadicam), and how those things grew naturally from the demands of filmmakers who had a strong artistic longing to achieve a certain kind of shot that was previously unattainable. In most cases, the growth of film technology and theater technology all sprang from similar organic origins. The drive-in movie, however, was the invention of a lone, passionate crackpot, who had a vision and, through careful engineering and trial-and-error, fulfilled it. Way back in the early 1930s – 1932 to be exact – a fellow named Richard Hollingshead Jr., operating out of his own driveway in Camden, NJ, thought to nail a large white screen across two trees directly opposite his house. He placed a home projector (rare in-home items in the 1930s, considered a luxury of the rich in the 1940s, and only became common consumer products in the late ‘50s) on the top of his car, and projected a film onto the screen, while running a radio behind it. He experimented with the appropriate width of parking spaces, the appropriate volume for the radio, and eventually drew up plans for what was to become the world’s first drive-in movie theater. Hollingshead opened his theater in 1933, encouraging people to bring kids. In the privacy of their own cars, after all, they could be as noisy as they wanted.
The idea was so popular that the early-to-mid-1930s saw a small boom in drive-ins. Many drive-ins were unpopular with neighbors, as they had to project their sound in enormously loud levels to be heard in the patrons’ cars. It wasn’t until 1941 that someone thought to arrange their drive-in lot with multiple speakers, one or two for each car, that would hook over the edge of your open window. The speakers also had volume knobs, so you could make the film as loud as you wanted.
By the late 1950s, there were about 4000 operating drive-in movie theaters in the U.S. This was due largely to the boom in car culture that occurred after WWII. Car production exploded, and cars became common items for all American citizens. As such, retailers began offering “drive-through” sales windows, and American life sped up considerably (if you read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, you’ll find much of the book is a criticism of this speed-up). Soon, the notion of “fast food” was introduced, and you could now drive through or drive up to your favorite restaurants, and get a cheap burger really quickly, and eat it in your car. You don’t see too many drive-up restaurants anymore (unless you live near a Rally’s or a Sonic), especially not the kind that offers rollerskate-wearing waitresses and hook-over-your-open-window trays, but surely all of you of driving age have had the experience of getting drive-through coffee or fast food. This is a distant ripple of the car boom of the 1950s.
The world’s largest drive-in was in New York, and was, according to an article on Wikipedia, about 29 acres and could hold 2500 cars. The snack bar was a full-tilt restaurant. This place is now closed, and I regret I could never see a movie there.
Drive-ins were a cheap way for a community to enjoy a movie. Most drive-in movies, back in the day and today, were presented as double features. There was an openness to a drive-in theater that you couldn’t get in regular indoor movie theaters. Being outdoors with hundreds of strangers gave movies a warm, summertime picnic feeling, with large numbers of people all enjoying something together. And while ordinary movie theaters still offer an important feeling of community and joint enjoyment, drive-ins offered a kind of party atmosphere. Kids would run freely, people would yell, and many would set up lawn chairs in the back of their flatbed trucks. Yelling at the top of your lungs wasn’t encouraged, but it happened regularly nonetheless.
Drive-ins could also afford to open more elaborate snack stands than their indoor counterparts. If you could bring the food back to your car, you could eat bigger meals. Many drive-ins offered a whole night for a bargain: Two movies, a playground for the kids, an indoor video arcade, a complicated menu of top-notch crap food, and an opportunity to scream at a movie. If there’s a more fun way to enjoy a film, I can’t think of it.
But along with the civic and public fun that drive-ins offered, they, of course, afforded ne’er-do-wells and teenagers all manner of illicit and illegal thrills as well. Since you were in the privacy of your own car, outdoors in the dark, a drive-in was an ideal place for a teenager to get laid. Going to the movies seemed like an innocuous enough activity, but the true intention was to climb into the backseat and shed clothing. There are no numbers on this, but I’d love to see a statistical analysis of how many people lost their virginity, or had sex at least once, during a drive-in movie. Indeed, drive-ins were such a hotbed for sexual activity that the drive-in has a reputation for it. If you own a van, and you ask a girl to a drive-in movie, I think we all know what’s really being said.
Also, since drive-ins allowed teenagers to get out of the house for a few hours, usually in their very own hot rods, drive-ins were popular with hoodlums and muggers. And I’m not just talking about the kids who would ride in in the trunk in order to get a free ticket. I’m talking about proper illegality. It was a place for drug deals, and, very occasionally, car-jackings. Drive-ins were, simultaneously, fun for the whole family and a den of iniquity. Gotta love it.
Drive-ins were also often independently run, meaning that the managers and owners would often have to bear the burden of booking films themselves. They didn’t necessarily have access to famous “A” features until months (or even years) after their initial release, and by then, the prints they received were faded and scratched and were sometimes even missing entire reels of footage. You could see a famous movie at a drive-in, but you’d be seeing a tattered version of it. In order to keep up with consumer demand, drive-in bookers had to make deals with local filmmakers, often snagging up whatever cheap genre films they could to puff up their calendars. As a result, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, drive-ins became notorious dens of gore-soaked horror films, sexploitation flicks, and other cheap and less-than-savory fare. As a lover of grindhouse entertainment, I wish I could go back in time and watch something like Herscehll Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore at a drive-in. With a date, of course. As part of a convoy of friends. Chowing down on really bad pizza, and sticking my feet out the car window. Bliss.
Thanks to the drive-in’s reputation for grindhouse entertainment, a drive-in manager friend of mine (who shall here remain nameless) once started showing older prints of classic 1970s movies at his theater as late as 2010. Teenagers would stay through their double feature, and he would secretly have after-hours screenings of films like Halloween. Something he discovered: Kids these days don’t have much of an eye for older movies; many of them had not heard of Halloween, or were at all familiar with its iconic monster Michael Myers. He would have to lie to the kids, telling them that Halloween was made in 2010, but was shot to look like a film from 1978. Something else he discovered: teenagers who are up late at a drive-in movie, to this day, adore scary exploitation movies. Context is all, it seems.
Thanks to the popularity of grindhouse entertainment and drive-in schlock, mainstream studios began to take notice, and co-opt the cheap gore for their own. “A” pictures used to be the classy films with big-name actors and stirring dramatic plots about the human condition. The films with monsters and blood and tits could only be found in the seedy neighborhoods and the drive-ins. The co-opting of grindhouse has now reached a point where the opposite is true. Smaller indie films are the ones who are typically exploring more daring dramatic motifs, while big-studio fare is all monsters and sci-fi extravaganzas. I will offer no comment on this paradigm shift, as the high- and low-budget versions of both have their strengths.
I advocate, of course, seeing movies in a quiet, darkened, respectful place like a movie theater, wherein you’ll be forced to pay close attention, and let the film play out in the way the filmmakers intended. But I also, conversely, advocate seeing a tattered print in a noisy place, absorbing the personality of the venue as much as the content of the film. A true theatrical experience will be, I think we can all agree, a balance between what the film is, and where you saw it. This is another facet of filmmaking that is often overlooked by filmmakers. You can make a film great, shoot it well, and pour your soul into the content, but you rarely concern yourself with how the viewer will see it. A great film can be made awful if you’re in a noisy place. A bad film can be made great of you see it with an enthused cult audience.
And a drive-in can make anything more fun. This, however, means that not all films were made for consumption in a drive-in. I wouldn’t, for instance, recommend that you see Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf at a drive-in. Or even a legitimate classic like Vertigo. The drive-in form is not necessarily conducive to slow-moving and complex films that require deep thought and careful attention. But any manner of broad comedy, horror, or action film, go for it.
Photo by Zen Icknow.
The drive-in, sadly, experienced a massive decline in the 1980s, mostly thanks (as many would agree) to the rise of the home video market. Plus, drive-ins have to, necessarily, take up a lot of space, and rising real estate costs in big city areas make them economically unfeasible. They closed en masse. I recall as a small child, seeing drive-ins close. The last film I saw in a drive-in as a child was Innerspace, which was released in 1987. It was a double feature with 1988’s Vice Versa, which I slept through. The remainder of the 1980s, and the whole of the ‘90s seemed to be a drive-in-free zone.
Starting in 2001, however, drive-ins saw something of a renaissance. Many private lots, used to renting out to daytime swap-meets and other events found that they could convert themselves into drive-ins at night. Screens were built with an eye for modularity, and could be erected at a moment’s notice. Some people even began experimenting with the notion of inflatable screens, which sounds awesome to me. And what of the over-the-door speakers? Well, miniature radio transmitters took their place, and you were now able to hear the film through your own car radio. What a brilliant notion. Now the sound would be as clear as your car speakers, and would likely sound better than the notoriously tinny speakers of a previous generation. The drive-in is now alive, albeit in a much more modest version, for a new generation. Thanks to enthusiasts and archivists, there are many resources online devoted to tracking the history of old drive-ins, and locating all the operating ones. Try this website for more info. I have, since the resurgence, seen several films in a drive-in. The last film I saw was now The Dark Knight Rises. I saw it at the West Wind Solano Drive-In. It was on a double bill with The Campaign. Me and my wife ate in the car, and spoke openly about the films. People around us honked their horns during the good parts. It was all so much fun.
The legacy continues. The spirit remains alive. There is still so much fun to be had.
Homework for the Week:
If you are within driving distance, I encourage you to go to a drive-in movie. Bring food. Bring a date. Bring friends. How is seeing a film at a drive-in different from seeing it in a theater? How much of a movie is informed by the venue in which you see it? What kind of movies would be better in a drive-in? Which would be worse? If you can’t see a movie in a drive-in, see if you can recreate it in your home. Go outdoors someplace (if you know anyone with a backyard), hang a white bedsheet, and see if you can rustle up a digital projector. Play a movie with a bunch of friends. How does the communal experience change the movie? How does the open night sky change a movie? What is the best place to see a movie?