ON A BALMY SUMMER EVENING, Marcelle Kimberley remembers sitting in her parents’ car with the windows down, dressed in her pajamas and eating a bag of buttery popcorn. The sun had gone down, the screen lit up and the young Kimberley was about to see cinematic magic.
The drive-in, born in the 1930s, has been through the Great Depression, World War II, poodle skirts, flower power, disco and hair metal — a simpler time before technology became a daily part of our lives and when “movie night” meant more than just seeing what was playing on Netflix.
It was the brainchild of Camden, New Jersey’s auto-parts salesman Richard Hollingshead, who reportedly wanted to find a way for his mother to experience the big screen without the embarrassment of not being able to fit into tiny theatre chairs. He projected the movie onto large white sheets while his mother sat in the car to watch. The 600-strong audience paid twenty-five cents per car and an additional twenty-five cents per person to catch a glimpse of director Fred Niblo’s 1932 comedy Wives Beware on opening night.
It would be another thirteen years until the first Canadian drive-in opened in Stoney Creek, Ontario. Skyway Drive-In Theatre held 705 cars and was open for nearly thirty years before closing in the 1970s. At its peak in the 1950s, North America was home to over 5,000 drive-in theatres.
But one by one, the lights went out. The Ottawa-Gatineau region alone lost six of its seven drive-ins. In 1975, Star-Top Drive-In became the first to go. Six years later, Auto Sky Drive-In shutdown, and in 1985 the Queensway Drive-In followed suit. Airport Drive-In closed in 1995, along with Aladdin Drive-in. The pair were followed shortly by Britannia Drive-In in 1996.
The golden age was over. By 2005, Canada was home to fifty-eight drive-in theatres.
And although going to the drive-in has an air of nostalgia, today’s new movies are anything but, this year’s summer fare included Magic Mike, The Expendables 2, Ice Age: The Meltdown and The Watch to name a few. A summer night out at the drive-in was the perfect backdrop for first dates and childhood fun and these are the kinds of memories Kimberley wanted the older generation to relive and the younger generation to experience by screening Hound of the Baskervilles 1930s-style at the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum.
While drive-ins are a thing of Kimberley’s past, there are plenty of moviegoers still making memories at Port Hope Drive-in Theatre in Coburg, Ontario. Its atmosphere remains true to that of the drive-ins golden era — right down to the pink, white, and baby blue ticket booth stationed at the entrance as well as gigantic walls of candy.
By keeping with that 1950′s feel, Port Hope preserves a little of the romantic nostalgia that Kimberley says is “getting harder and harder to find.” She’s right. In fact, people of all ages will drive roughly an hour just to go see a movie at Port Hope because they crave an experience they can’t get in their hometown.
The cinematic experience of a night out at the drive-in is something that can’t be described but must instead be lived, Ashley says. There’s nothing to compare it to. But for those who grew up with them the drive-in may have started to lose its lustre.
Indoor theatres had the advantage of better sound quality, better picture, more screens and therefore more options for movies. They usually got the top movies, leaving ‘B and ‘X’ rated movies for the drive-ins. In 2005, while attendance was rising, profits were dismal. Independents theatres were making around $1,700 profit, while larger chains made around seventeen times the profit of smaller independents, roughly $106,000 in 2004-2005.
This extreme difference in profit is what puts drive-ins at risk, especially when most of those profits aren’t going towards new movies and new equipment. For many older drive-ins like Port Hope, the majority of the profits go towards property maintenance. Most drive-ins are mom-and-pop operations and they don’t have the money to keep up with the big players.
When theatres were first built they were generally on the outskirts of towns, but Kimberely explains that with urban sprawl and the increased price of land, it becomes much more lucrative for some owners to sell their land, instead of paying for the huge amounts of acreage theatres need to accommodate their automobile-bound audience. In the 1960s, many drive-ins had space for hundreds of cars and the cost of an acre of land in Ontario was less than $1,000. Now that same plot of land can cost upwards of $10,000.
In late 2011, Twentieth Century Fox told exhibitors the company would stop distributing 35mm films by 2013. It’s cheaper for the distributors to work with digital projection, saving them billions of dollars each year. But as studios count their savings, independents are picking up the bill.
It’s fair to say that if digital hasn’t killed drive-ins yet, it certainly will soon, says Lee Demarbre, programmer for the Mayfair Theatre. He is currently trying to switch their Bank Street location over to digital projectors by the end of the year, but it’s not a choice he’s happy about. In fact, it wasn’t even a choice. “There was no decision,” he said. “It was close or switch.”
Ashley says he can’t think of a single drive-in that uses digital. In fact, many are still using the same old film projectors they’ve had and repaired since the 1950s. Now, they are being told to spend anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 to switch to digital projectors that are only reliable for a few years. “It’s definitely hands down the biggest threat to the industry,” Ashley says.
Before the announcement, Demarbre says, theatres could request movies in either digital or film format. He has always chosen 35mm film — it is, he believes, the key to cinematic magic. A reel of film consists of thousands of still frame photos, and as the projector spins the film reels, it weaves an illusion of movement. “When you leave your house and spend money on a ticket, 35mm film gives you an experience you can’t have at home,” he says. Many drive-ins and independent theatres will be in the same situation when 35mm film distribution ends.
Port Hope is holding out until the last moment before switching over to digital. The quality of film is better, and the cost of switching is very high, but that’s not all that’s stopping them. “Studios think they can just snap their fingers and everything will change,” Ashley says. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Drive-in theatres have survived nearly eighty years of technological developments — from television to indoor theatres to the Internet. They have attracted both families and courting couples. “People always want the newest thing,” Kimberley says. But despite all their nostalgic charm, unless they can learn to adapt, this former starlet may have met its match.
Natalie Berchem is an assignment editor at CanCulture.