Drive-in theaters back from the dead

Parking lot screens survive on family-friendly pics

A few years ago, it felt as though drive-in theaters were fading into oblivion, if they weren’t there already. From the 1970s to the ’90s, thousands closed, often due to rising land values that were worth much more as built-up condos and/or mini-malls than empty parking lots with an adjacent bigscreen.

But now, with the number of theaters holding steady — 636 screens are currently operating at 383 locations — drive-in operators are finding a steady business can be had, although not without its challenges.

Ozoners, as Variety dubbed them upon their founding in 1933, are often open only in summer months, and their ticket prices are low — $5-$7 each for adults, with kids usually free.

Is that any way to run a profitable business in these days of $14 admissions and $6 cappuccinos? Some people still think so and, in fact, approximately 90 drive-ins have sprung up or reopened since the 1990s.

It’s hard to believe that in the 75th anniversary year of the drive-in, some end up as the top-grossing theaters during the summer.

Paul Geissinger, president of the United Drive-In Theaters Assn., owns the country’s oldest still-operating drive-in, Shankweiler’s in Orefield, Penn., which opened in 1934. He’s worked there since 1971 and is holding onto it now mostly as an investment property. But in the meantime, “We continued to put money into it and became very profitable. It’s a business that’s the icon of Americana.”

At the org’s annual convention in Florida last month, operators discussed common issues such as rising land values, concessions, cost of equipment and the eventual move to digital projection. The conversion to digital is a much thornier issue for drive-ins than for hardtops, though, since the large screens and long throw will add costs when replacing old equipment.

Concessions are more profitable to drive-ins than admission prices, since parents often purchase meals for the whole family — pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs — rather than just popcorn.

DeAnza Drive-ins comprises seven ozoners in mostly warm climates, with a total of 29 screens including Southern California’s hip Mission Tiki in Montclair and Atlanta’s iconic Starlite Six. The company started in 1948, had 40 screens at its peak, and has managed to weather the huge downturn.

“It became necessary to multiplex larger venues,” says DeAnza VP Frank Huttinger. “Having a swap meet allows you to have cash flow in winter. Summer business is always very good.

“About four years ago, we noticed increases in attendance, when the studios increased the amount of family-friendly pictures they were making,” he says. DeAnza took that uptick as a sign that drive-ins would remain popular for several years to come, and so he started investing in branding and remodeling.

He brought in artist Tiki Diablo to help design the Mission Tiki complex with Easter Island statues, thatched roofs and tropical landscaping. It’s become a popular rendezvous for car clubs, parties and, of course, gatherings of both Tiki aficionados and of the Southern California Drive-In Assn. In Atlanta, the Starlite hosts two large music/movie festivals a year with overnight camping and live bands.

Susan Kochevar runs the only remaining ozoner in the Denver area, her family’s 88 Drive-In — they bought it in 1976 when a drive-in porno theater went bust — and says, “To be able to show new movies in a place that’s an icon is exciting.”

“The management is stressing the fact that each car is, in effect, a private box, whose occupants can talk, eat or smoke at pleasure,” read Variety’s 1933 article describing the first drive-in in Camden, N.J. That privacy — and an affordable price for a family evening out — should keep drive-ins alive for the foreseeable future.

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