I can’t remember my first movie at my local drive-in, a three-screen outdoor theater on the outskirts of Warwick, NY. That’s not to say that the Warwick Drive-In wasn’t memorable; in fact, there were few things that were quite as exciting in my youth as finding out we’d be skipping the local theater to go to the drive-in. Rather, the Warwick Drive-In offered an essential, singular, and somewhat perpetual cinematic experience, which certainly helps the memories bleed together. In a lot of ways, the drive-in experience was like the theatergoing equivalent of a gateway drug, defining the experiences that would come later while accentuating every reason to return.
On the other side of the coin, once I could drive myself to the Warwick Drive-in, I clearly recall some of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my youth. Whether it was seeing Snakes on a Plane and Pineapple Express with friends on a warm summer night, having my soul crushed with fellow fanboys at Spider-Man 3, or being reluctantly dragged from a late-night shift for a double date to see The X-Files: I Want to Believe, the memory is so vivid that I can almost feel it right now. In that respect, the multiplex has nothing on the drive-in, even if the former has grown while the latter dwindled in number and relevance.
Growing up as an obsessive film fan, I suppose I was lucky to have those drive-in experiences, considering that, at the time of this writing, there are only about 330+ drive-in theaters in the United States. Sadly, a lot of these theaters are up-and-running because of contracts with major studios, which severely limit the number of repertory screenings and often exclude anything but first-run blockbusters from playing on weekends. For the hardcore cinephiles out there, it’s even more depressing as most of these theaters have switched from classic, organic 35mm screenings to digital projection as to keep up with the changing times. It may still look good, but for such an old-school experience, it’s just not the same.
However, the fact that there are still drive-in theaters in America, some of which are actually thriving, does stress the many ways that drive-ins can be important. To working class families in rural areas, discounted ticket prices for double features and low-priced concessions make drive-in moviegoing a much more affordable alternative to expensive multiplexes. To others, the drive-in can be a communal experience, as their locations often attract specific regions, making it more likely that you’d find your neighbors and friends at the same screening, as opposed to the centralized theaters in malls and urban areas that attract strangers from far and wide. And to some, the drive-in offers a certain amount of freedom that one might not be able to find at chain theaters, whether it’d be sneaking in a case of beer (unless you’re the driver, of course), being able to smoke from your car window, or even bring your pet to the movies, as long as they don’t stir up too much noise. And, of course, you can’t forget the nostalgic factor of it all, especially if your venue still features those golden age cartoon advertisements with jingles that are sure to stick to your brain for life.
Even those drive-in theaters are fewer than they’ve ever been before, there have been many signs that drive-ins are on the comeback trail in recent years. As multiplexes continue to upgrade to more expensive systems and keep up with trends, such as 3D, IMAX, 4D, 4K, D-Box, Dolby Atmos, etc., some audiences prefer the simplicity of the drive-in. Meanwhile, drive-in theaters have become attractive to movie meet-up groups on social media, many of whom can eschew the lines of traditional venues and indulge in cosplay without scrutiny. Hell, even filmmakers have specifically targeted drive-in theaters to accentuate the atmosphere of their latest films, including acclaimed genre director Joe Lynch, who premiered his shoot-’em-up action thriller Everly at L.A.’s Vineland Drive-In in 2015.
Furthermore, some drive-in locations have embraced the nostalgia factor and used it to reinvigorate their fan bases. For instance, Pennsylvania’s Mahoning Drive-In has become a mecca for genre fans, containing their programming exclusively to 35mm prints as well as serving as host for all-nighter film festivals of mystery horror and science fiction titles. Likewise, Shelbyville, Indiana’s Skyline Drive-In has catered to casual and habitual moviegoers alike, with new titles as well as benchmark events such as their Super Monster Movie Fest and the indie-centric Pandemonium Picture Show. Hell, repertory drive-in theaters have even crossed borders to Mexico City’s Autocinema Coyote, run by The Similars filmmaker Isaac Ezban, which attracts crowds with classic and cult movie titles such as Carrie, The Never-Ending Story, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even mystery titles for audiences who might not otherwise get the chance to see them on the big screen.
If there’s anything that could potentially send the drive-in theater back into mainstream greatness again, it would likely be the August Moon Drive-In, an immersive, indoor theater looking to recapture the essence of a ‘60s drive-in experience. Launching in 2018, August Moon is the brainchild of Michael Counts, who employs a 40,000-foot dome, era-appropriate cars, and the world’s largest, non-IMAX screen to note only create a new drive-in experience entirely, but a full-on interactive environment, complete with a multitude of surprises along the way. Add in the opportunity to eat classic comfort foods and a varied programming library of both first-run and repertory screenings, and August Moon could do for the drive-in what Disneyland did for the rollercoaster.
“I think the opportunity to transport back to that time is what’s going to drive people from around the world to August Moon on an ongoing basis,” says Counts. “Ultimately, what we are offering is not just a drive-in movie theater; we are offering the perfect summer night at a drive-in movie theater in 1965. There are over 50 trees, classic cars, and everything is built to scale at 40,000 feet. It’s never been done before, and I think people who love movies will love the idea of watching a movie within a movie set.”
“We’re basically going to be screening people’s favorite movies of all time,” Counts continues. “It’s like the Alamo Drafthouse, who do a lot of fan-oriented screenings, or like Fathom Events, who have been screening a lot of movies that people love that you don’t get to see on the big screen anymore. So we’re going to let the fans and the community drive a lot of the movie selection. So sometimes we might show first-run movies, but a lot of the time we will screen things like Star Wars, Indiana Jones movies, and movies that are being reintroduced to new audiences. These movies are classics, and not in the black-and-white, Casablanca definition of classics, these are movies that people love and have a large fanbase. I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re cult-classics, but we’re very interested in programming movies people love.”
It’s a bold project, and one that comes with a $10 million price tag when all is said and done. When you factor in the runtime of the entire experience, aiming for an average of three hours for the complete experience that includes an immersive pre-show experience and a post-show “roadhouse” bar and restaurant option. But much like Disneyland, August Moon has plans to bring the classic drive-in experience to the global marketplace, should the theatrical, membership-based experiment prove to be a success.
“The movie theater experience is not going anywhere; you can have a 96-inch plasma 4K TV at home, but it won’t compare to seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on opening night in a theater full of people,” Counts adds. “That shared experience is never going away, because you can’t replicate that experience at home. That feeling is what drives and inspires things like August Moon; in time, I hope to open August Moon locations all around the world.”
But if there’s something significant to be recognized from August Moon, it’s that major investors are willing to invest in the classic drive-in experience, as long as the circumstances are right. If August Moon were to become a runaway success, one might expect drive-in theaters to begin popping up again, with imitators employing new angles and state-of-the-art technology to lure audiences away from the multiplex. At the end of the day, drive-in theaters will always be an indispensable part of old-fashioned Americana, and as long as moviegoers are willing to gas up and get there, there will be a drive-in, somewhere, waiting to oblige them.