The drive-in theater has been a fixture of American culture since The Thirties. Every summer night (and all year round in warmer climates), millions of viewers pay the admission fee for themselves and their friends (at least the ones who aren't hiding in the trunk), get some snacks at the concession stand, and watch two (or more) movies projected on an outdoor screen from the privacy and comfort of their cars. Although drive-ins are most popular in the United States, they exist around the world. The drive-in is an enduring symbol of Americana whose continued existence defies some heavy odds.
The Beginning: The drive-in theater was created in 1933 by chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., who opened the first one in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. It was popular enough that similar theaters began to open around the country. The drive-in became known as a place where a family could enjoy watching movies from the privacy of their car.
The Rise: Drive-ins really took off after World War Two; by their peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins all across America. While they continued to show mainstream Hollywood fare for families, they also became popular with teenagers, who would come to see the latest B Movies (which usually dealt with Science Fiction monsters, juvenile delinquents, and early rock & roll). Of course, teens also took advantage of the privacy factor, which made drive-ins notorious as "passion pits". In the popular imagination, drive-ins are still associated with these tropes derived from the 1950s. However, this heyday was Too Good to Last...
The Fall: Drive-ins gradually declined for a number of reasons. The real estate they used became too valuable to "waste" on a business which could operate for only a few hours a day, a few months a year, and even then was subject to bad weather. Meanwhile, audiences began turning to home video, cable or satellite TV for their movie fix, or hitting up the then-new concept of the multiplex cinema. North American motorcars had become smaller (and less comfortable) due to the various energy crises in The Seventies; the re-introduction of Daylight Savings Time as a conservation measure shifted the start time of every film an hour later. Some drive-ins responded by changing their emphasis from family fare to the increasingly violent and sexually explicit exploitation and horror films that were, ironically, the successors to the 1950s B-Movies. (A few drive-ins even showed outright pornography.) Another common tactic was for drive-ins to add multiple screens. Some rented their land during the day to other businesses, such as flea markets — or managed such businesses themselves. A few operated amusement parks or other attractions to which the cinepark became merely a sideline. Especially in urban areas, the vast expanses of land necessary for a drive-in became too expensive to maintain, and the land was sold for redevelopment because it just wasn't financially feasible to keep it open. The same pressures with land costs were killing independent motels in favour of economy limited service hotel chains, while the drive-in "car hop" restaurant was supplanted by the drive-through format. Most drive-ins were forced to close between The Seventies and the Turn of the Millennium, with additional closures in the twenty-first century as studios refused to continue distributing content as reels of photographic film; the six-figure expense of new digital projectors (as the feature now arrived on computer hard drives) was often difficult to justify for a small, purely-seasonal business which was already struggling. In many cases, the land was even turned over to build a shiny new multiplex cinema. It seemed that the drive-in was headed for extinction—or was it?
The Resurgence: In the 2000s and 2010s, drive-ins have enjoyed a Revival; a few new theaters have even opened in the last few years. Some of this is due to Baby Boomer nostalgia, although many 21st-century drive-in visitors are too young to remember the medium's heyday. Also, a "guerrilla drive-in" movement has developed to show films in parks, parking lots and other open urban spaces. Drive-ins received an additional popularity bump during the 2020 pandemic: people could go to see a movie on a big screen and maintain physical distance from everybody else at the same time. Although it's unlikely that drive-ins will ever again be as numerous as they were during The Fifties, it seems that they're here to stay — at least for the foreseeable future.
During intermissions, drive-ins traditionally show advertisements for the snack bar, as well as public service announcements, ads for local merchants, safety messages and reminders of when the next movie is going to start ("10 minutes to showtime!"). These peppy, often animated ads have a following of their own; many are available on DVD compilations and in the Internet Archive's Moving Image Archive.
Many drive-ins have playgrounds for child patrons to use before the show.
They've also changed as technology improved. Originally, Drive-ins had physical speakers, attached by wire to a post, which you removed from the post, rolled down your window, placed the speaker inside, then rolled up the window. This often caused people to forget they had the speaker attached, causing them to drive off, usually ripping the speaker off the post and possibly breaking the window. (Some very small ones just had a single, large speaker.) Today, drive ins have low-power broadcast transmitters, that send the audio to your car radio. Some drive-ins even have digital sound (usually the DTS format, since they are the only company that does installations for digital sound in drive-ins). This also means, if the car has good stereo, that the sound can be as good as that in a high-quality walk-in theater. Some drive-ins run AM as well as FM signals for the few people who don't have FM radio.
- Tales Of The Starlight Drive In, an award-winning graphic novel written by Michael Sangiacomo, is an anthology of stories set at a single drive-in over 53 years.
- An issue of Hsu and Chan had the characters head off to a drive-in and getting caught up in a money making scheme of an old movie anniversary.
- Targets ends with a sniper taking potshots at patrons at a drive-in theater. He is eventually faced down by Boris Karloff.
- Spies Like Us: A Star Wars-style anti-missile system is hidden underneath an old run-down drive-in theater.
- Our Man Flint: One of the fantasy make-out areas inside the GALAXY base is designed to look like a drive-in theater.
- A tornado attacks one during Twister, complete with Shout-Out to The Shining, matching the "Here's Johnny!" scene to the tornado crashing into said theater.
- Grease had a couple of scenes at one, including the musical number "Sandy".
- There's an especially bad slasher film called Drive in Massacre.
- There's another DTV slasher film simply called Drive-In, and its surprisingly decent.
- Explorers has a memorable scene where the home-built spaceship flies slowly across the screen of a drive-in movie theater in the middle of a campy 1950's sci-fi schlockfest. A patron in one of the cars complains that the special effects look fake, thinking it's part of the movie, and claims to be able to see the string. Then the ship turns and zooms right over his head, and he spills his popcorn in shock.
- One was featured in a Played for Laughs scene in Back to The Future Part 3.
- Sean from The Monster Squad lives near one, and he sometimes sits on his roof to catch free movies with his dad (don't remember if they had a radio with them, but they could hear the movie).
- The ending of Pee Wees Big Adventure.
- One of the scenes in Air Buddies has the puppies go to a drive-in theatre and interrupt the showing of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. A biker gang is there watching the movie, and when the puppies pass by them... they literally Pet the Dog.
- Cars: The characters are watching parodies of other Pixar films at the end of the movie; since they're all vehicles of some sort, of course it's a drive-in theatre.
- As Cars was based on multiple research trips on 1200 miles of the former US Route 66, the cinepark is likely the 66 Drive-In in Carthage MO - which is on the national historic register.
- The American car culture in Cars also manifests itself in every hotel being a motel and every restaurant being a "car hop" style drive-in. Effectively, the film is nostalgia for The Fifties and America's love affair with the automobile in that era.
- Northville Cemetery Massacre includes a scene where a bunch of motorcycles pull up to a drive-in theater (specifically, the now-abandoned Jolly Roger Drive-In in the Detroit suburb of Taylor).
- In Red Dawn, the Dirty Communists turn this icon of American culture into a prison/reeducation camp.
- In Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, some of the participants in a just completed vault robbery hide in the (huge) trunk of a 1950s Chevy, which goes over to the nearby drive-in as a vehicle with a couple of regular customers. Unfortunately, the clothes of the men hiding are exposed hanging out of the trunk, which causes the manager to call the police.
- Wikipedia describes the Australian feature Dead End Drive-In as "a 1986 science-fiction Ozploitation Film about a teenage couple who become trapped in a drive-in theater which is really a concentration camp for societal rejects who are fed a steady diet of junk food, rock and pop music, and movies."
- The Sugarland Express - the fugitive couple watch a Road Runner cartoon on the drive-in screen across from their motel room.
- Stanley Kubrick's Lolita has Humbert sitting between Lolita and Mrs. Hayes at a drive-in showing the Hammer Film Frankenstein. At a shocking moment hands grab other hands, with awkward consequences.
- The original That Darn Cat features a Chase Scene at a drive-in.
- Blood Rage begins at a drive-in, where the killer (then a young boy) claims his first victim by hacking up a random patron up with an axe that was lying around... for some reason.
- The killer gets chased to a drive-in by angry bikers in New Years Evil. He escapes by knifing one of them and hijacking a car.
- The Cider House Rules contains a fictional example of a drive-in theater being used as a Make-Out Point.
- The second Snark Out Boys novel by Daniel Pinkwater deals with the secret history of the drive-in as a major plot point. The book claims that the original "drive-in" was a stage show in Romania in the 1800s, which the peasants hated so much that they burned it down and drove the purveyor out of the country. The climax of the book is at the world's largest drive-in theater, founded by a descendant of the original inventor. A Romanian pyromaniac shows up and sets the entire lot on fire.
- This might be how Harry Dresden, who makes pop culture references all the time despite being Walking Techbane, manages see most movies. However, it's possible that he just goes to normal movie theaters and is careful to sit far from the projector.
- A character is forced to watch the deaths of his friends in a decayed drive-in in The Nightmares on Elm Street: Freddy Krueger's Seven Sweetest Dreams story "Asleep at the Wheel".
- One of these appeared in an episode of The Adventures of Pete and Pete where older Pete and Ellen go on a date.
- The bad guys on Chuck had their base in an old drive-in.
- In an early episode of That Eric, Donna, Kelso and Jackie go to the local drive-in to watch The Omen - well, actually to make out.
- In Green Acres, Oliver and Lisa go to a drive-in, while in the pick-up truck next to them, a couple are busy making out with extreme passion. Oliver tries to pull the speaker off of the post, but it's too short, it flies back, smashing the driver's side window of that same vehicle. The couple is so busy with heavy necking that they never even notice.
- Angel takes Connor to a drive-in in an attempt at father-son bonding.
- In the "Julie" segment of the Made for TV Anthology Film Trilogy of Terror, a student who has an unhealthy obsession with his teacher takes her on a date to a drive-in, knocks her out with a spiked drink, then takes compromising photos of her while she's unconscious.
- One of the last episodes of Cold Case began with a guy getting sniped in a drive-in.
- The Mission Impossible episode "The Psychic" begins with Briggs receiving his assignment at a drive-in.
- An episode of Family Matters took place at a drive-in and focused on the dates of Laura, Steve, and Waldo. The latter of which didn't even come in a car, rather Maxine and he just walk in with folding chairs and coolers.
- "There's an Elvis movie on the marquee sign" is the opening line to Hal Ketchum's "Small Town Saturday Night".
- "Moonlight Drive-In" by Turner Nichols recalls a former lover and how they would make out at the drive-in.
- In "Everything's Changed" by Lonestar, the narrator laments all of the things that have changed in his hometown — but the one thing that stays the same is how much he still loves her. One of the things that's changed is "That old drive-in is a new Wal-Mart".
- Post-punk band At the Drive-In, who take their name from a Poison lyric.
- "Wake Up Little Susie," recorded in 1957 by the Everly Brothers, describes a pair of teens who fall asleep during the movie. Banned in Boston for lyrics that, at the time, were considered suggestive.
- Vigilante 8: 2nd Offense had a level set in a desert which featured one of these; driving through the screen would get you a power-up and (depending on the character) is necessary to complete the level.
- Fallout 3 has a drive-in theater. One of the cars has two skeletons embracing on the hood.
- One of the fields in Backyard Baseball is Starlite Orchards Drive-In.
- One of the stages in the first Destroy All Humans! has a drive-in theater.
- It even played a full length movie during one mission.
- One of the places that could be attacked by the giant ants in It Came From The Desert was the local drive-in.
- An abandoned drive-in is present in the Stilwater of Saints Row 2, just north of Stilwater University, and used as part of one of the Hitman Activities. Complete with boarded up building, old speakers on poles, rusted up cars, and homeless bums!
- The multiplayer map "Drive-In" from Call of Duty Black Ops is set in an abandoned drive-in. Besides having an arcade with Call of Duty: World At War games, the old movie screen has a chunk torn out of it to make an effective sniping post.
- One of the levels in Twisted Metal Black is a drive-in theatre. A well placed missile can destroy the screen.
- The syndicated opening and closing credits of The Flintstones feature the "modern stone age family" visiting a drive-in theater.
- A drive-in also appears in Scooby Doo and The Reluctant Werewolf.
- In an episode of The Simpsons, Marge and Homer double-date with Grandpa and his girlfriend, Zelda, to a drive-in to see Dude, Where's My Virginity?. Grandpa and Zelda start making out in the front seat.
- In another episode, Apu reveals that he sometimes gets up on the roof of the Kwik-E-Mart so he can watch movies at the drive in across the street for free.
- The Jersey Drive-In is the battleground for the penultimate episode of Megas XLR in "Universal Remote". It's mentioned that Coop destroyed all the other drive-ins in Jersey. They also sneak Goat in the trunk of Megas because sneaking people into the drive-through is a "time-honored tradition".
- The Magic School Bus episode "Spins a Web" shows the students seen into a Movie Within a Show on a drive-in screen in which they soon find themselves. As with most shows to feature a drive-in that isn't a period piece, a B-Movie is being shown.
- The Animaniacs episode "Drive Insane" features the Warners crashing Dr. Scratchansniff's date at a drive-in theater. There's a joke featuring them bouncing around in the car that will go over the heads of kids but will mean plenty to adults.
- The My Life as a Teenage Robot episode "Future Scope" features a drive-in movie theater, but this is likely due to the Retro-Future feel of the series.
- There was a one-hour Rugrats special, "Runaway Reptar", that was partly set at a drive-in theater.
- The Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers episode "Good Times, Bat Times" begins at a drive-in theater.
- Part of the Pac-Man episode "Pacula" took place at a drive-in theater.
- The Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie has a parody of snack bar advertisements in which friendly, anthropomorphic snack food mascots are replaced by the metal band Mastodon.
- The Two Stupid Dogs episode "At the Drive-In". Watching the movie, Little Dog comments on how bad the movie is and wonders why people would go there. Cue the bouncing and rocking cars.
- On Beavis and Butthead, the two go to a drive-in, but since they naturally don't have a car, they wander around. They take a picture of a hideous she-beast having sex in her van, and spend the rest of the episode fleeing her.
- Another B&B example: In the Revival episode "Tech Support", the boys go to the site of an abandoned drive-in ("Abandoned drive-ins kick ass!"), only to find an office building in its place.
- The credits of Johnny Bravo were "projected" onto a drive-in screen.
- Casper's Haunted Christmas begins with the Ghostly Trio wreaking havoc at a drive-in.
- Synergy, the supercomputer of Jerrica "Jem" Benton and her family, was found at the Starlight Drive-In.
- In the Ruby-Spears Superman episode "Bonechill", the titular villain makes the monsters from a B-Movie shown at a drive-in come to life.
- Finn and Marceline crash one of these in at end of the the Adventure Time episode, Go With Me.
- One episode of American Dad! had Roger gaining some old 80's movies and a pack of cars mistakenly sent to the Smith house. Steve, in another attempt to get a girl, has Roger play the movies on the side of the neighboring house while Steve, his friends, and the current girl of his attention and her friends watch from the cars as a makeshift drive in.
- Was the focus of an episode of The Replacements when Riley starts working there but finds the manager too strict and has him replaced with a film director who promptly gets the place closed down due to horrible management.
Thank you for reading the Drive-In Theater page! Allthetropes.org appreciates your patronage. Please remember to replace the speaker on the post when you leave the theater, and have a pleasant evening.