Academic journal article Economics, Management and Financial Markets

The Economics of Drive-In Theatres: From Mainstream Entertainment to Nostalgia on the Margins

Academic journal article Economics, Management and Financial Markets

The Economics of Drive-In Theatres: From Mainstream Entertainment to Nostalgia on the Margins

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Research on drive-in theatres is relatively sparse. During recent decades, that research has largely focused on the history of drive-ins in different regions within the United States, including Colorado (Wolfe, 2007), Wisconsin (Marchant, 2001), and Virginia (Sopko, 2008). The drive-in theater industry is worthy of further research in light of the historical are of drive-in theater exhibition. At their peak in the 1950s, there were around 4,500 drive-in theatres in the United States, comprising around one-third of all cinemas and accounting for 25% of box office revenues (Kozak, 2007; Lobban, 1996c). This was an impressive feat as drive-ins theatres typically only operate for a limited number of months per year (particularly in cooler climates) and usually only show films after dusk.

Historically, drive-ins were an integral part of their local communities. For example, Durant (1950) observed what he called de lux drive-in theatres, which were akin to community recreation centers:

Flere, for instance, are some of the things you can do at various ozoners [drive-ins] without taking your eyes off the screen or missing a word of dialogue: You can eat a complete meal, get your car washed and serviced, including a change of tires, have the week's laundry done, your shopping list filled and the baby's bottle warmed. All this while the show is on. (p. 24)

During the 1950s additional entertainment was common at drive-ins (Lobban, 1996a). These drive-ins often had a "circus-like atmosphere that you just didn't get at an indoor theater" (qtd. in Wright, 2013). One of the largest drive-ins of its day was The Johnny All-Weather Drive-in. This drive-in opened in 1957 in Copiague, Long Island, with a capacity of 2,500 vehicles (, 2015a). The All-Weather Drive-in also had an indoor theatre for inclement weather, as well as a playground, restaurant, cafeteria, and a shuttle train to transport customers around the 28-acre facility (Capo, 2004).

Given the early and widespread appeal of drive-ins, a 1950 article by Rodney Luther predicted that they would have a bright future - even though television was emerging as a competing form of entertainment at that time:

Most discussions of television indicate that TV competition may alter the present structure of theatre exhibition to a considerable degree. However, the drive-in theatre is capable of offering a greater number of varied attractions than is possible in the case of conventional theatres, even though the precise drawing power of pony rides, laundry service, etc. has not been determined. Moreover, since drive-ins have achieved their present status with largely subsequent-run product offerings, it seems apparent that they can progress considerably further if given first- and second-run product. In the few cases where drive-in theatres have enjoyed first-run product, outstanding grosses have been recorded. (1950: 46^17)

If we fast-forward to the present day, most drive-in theatres do indeed offer first-run movies, but they tend not to offer the wide range of entertainment options that were common in the 1950s. Moreover, today, television is only one of the substitute forms of entertainment competing with drive-ins. Technological and social developments have made drive-in theatres largely extinct and they are now a marginal form of film exhibition.

In recent years, the costs of moving to digital projection technology have further undermined the viability of drive-ins. Historically, major movie studios made first release films available on 35mm, but in the future new releases will only be available in digital format (Alexander and Blakely, 2014). This means that cinemas, including drive-ins, need to invest in costly digitalprojection equipment. Today, fewer than 350 drive-in theatres remain in the United States, compared to around 5,326 traditional cinemas (, 2015b; National Association of Theatre Owners, 2015a). …

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