August 23, 2013 8:13 pm

The last picture show

As cars get smaller and Hollywood moves to digital, the drive-in movie is under threat
Drive-in movie illustration by Lucas Varela©Lucas Varela

The drive-in movie, an experience as American as baseball, white-picket fences and the cheese-filled pizza crust, is under threat. It was once the Saturday night staple for any teenager with a driving licence hoping to escape parental clutches and engage in some heavy-duty snogging. But with Hollywood studios moving to digital projection and winding down distribution of 35mm film prints, the drive-in is heading for the cinematic scrap yard.

At their peak in the late 1950s there were as many as 4,000 drive-ins across the US, but their number has dwindled to a couple of hundred. By the end of this year, when 35mm distribution comes to an end, there may be none left. Honda is trying to rally support, pledging to donate digital projectors to five sites voted for by the public. It has also started a crowdfunding programme for ailing drive-ins but at the time of going to press had only raised a measly $17,000 – barely enough to keep a projector running at a single property.

I missed out on the drive-in experience myself. There wasn’t much demand for them in the rainy corner of northeast England where I grew up. But I have always been intrigued by films such as American Graffiti and The Outsiders – even Grease – which portrayed drive-ins as social hubs where boys chased girls, hamburgers were munched and milkshakes quaffed. Today’s teenagers are more likely to be found glued to an iPad, drinking Red Bull and sexting each other.

There are several possible explanations for the drive-in’s demise. First, cars got smaller and less comfortable. In the 1950s and 1960s gigantic cars ruled American roads. Think of rolling up to a drive-in in a Cadillac Eldorado – a low-slung, tail-finned monster the size of a house – the heads of your high-school classmates turning in admiration; or in a 1958 Chevy Impala, with its roaring throttle, contoured lines and wide, shared seats. Now think of arriving in your parents’ fuel-efficient but character-free Toyota Prius. The response wouldn’t quite be the same.

Secondly, drive-ins have barely evolved, unlike cinemas, which still attract plenty of teenagers. Today’s well-appointed multiplexes are a far cry from the dank, smoke-filled rooms of my youth, although I am unsure how much my young children enjoy the experience. Booming Surround Sound is perfect for hearing an onscreen bullet whizzing over your head but also a great way to scare the living daylights out of a four-year-old still asking, 10 minutes into the film, why the lights have been turned off. On our last visit he cowered in terror; his twin sister was less perturbed but spent an hour wrestling with her folding seat which kept springing up, trapping her inside.

Then there is 3D. All animated children’s films are now released in 3D with the expectation that punters will pay more for a ticket. Yet my three couldn’t care less about characters leaping out of the screen. The first time we took my six-year-old son to a 3D movie we realised at the end that he had taken off his 3D glasses and watched it wearing my wife’s sunglasses instead. Strangely, he hadn’t noticed anything amiss.

A drive-in would be free of these worries. We could strap the kids in so they couldn’t run around, bring our own food, thus avoiding having to remortgage our house to pay for the eye-wateringly expensive popcorn, and drive off at speed if the film wasn’t any good – all without having to herd children anywhere. Bliss.

But with no drive-ins near us in Los Angeles – and the rest under threat – we won’t be going soon. A better bet for an outdoor movie experience might be the Hollywood Forever cemetery, which screens classic movies and horror films, steps away from the final resting place of such legends as Fay Wray, Cecil B DeMille and Rudolph Valentino. Yes, it sounds a bit creepy but the kids might like it. I’ll just have to remember not to take them the night they show The Exorcist.

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s LA correspondent. matthew.garrahan@ft.com; Twitter @MattGarrahan

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