There was a time, perhaps during your grandparents’ teen years, when going to a movie was a very different experience. Movies were viewed at drive-in theatres. Yes, outdoors, while sitting in your car.
A drive-in theatre is a large outdoor property with a giant movie screen where projectors beamed feature films while patrons remained in their cars and had wired speakers hanging from the driver’s window. It was a very different kind of entertainment experience than we know today.
Suddenly, the drive-in theatre seems to be making a return. As a result of COVID-19, this sort of movie venue has been gaining interest as a means to project feature films while keeping patrons safe from the virus while being entertained inside their cars.
Though there were drive-ins as early as the 1910s, the first patented drive-in was opened on June 6, 1933 by Richard Hollingshead in New Jersey. He created it as a solution for people unable to comfortably fit into smaller movie theater seats after creating a mini drive-in for his mother. Appealing to families, Hollingshead advertised his drive-in as a place where “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
The success of Hollingshead’s drive-in caused more and more drive-ins to appear in the USA, and they spread internationally as well. Drive-ins gained immense popularity 20 years later during the 1950s and ‘60s with the Baby Boomer generation. There were over 4,000 drive-ins throughout the U.S. and most were located in rural areas. They maintained popularity as both a space for families to spend time with each other as well as an affordable date night option.
While drive-in theatres began operating in the United States in the early 1930s, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that they would expand to Canada. The first drive-in theatre in Canada was the Skyway Drive-in in Stoney Creek, Ontario on Highway 8, which opened for business on July 10, 1946. It featured a 100-by-50-foot screen and public address loudspeaker system for the sound. Later, individual speakers for automobiles replaced the P.A. loudspeakers. The Skyway Drive-in could accommodate 705 vehicles.
Drive-in theatres had limitations. They could only show movies during the warmer months, so most were closed during the winter. They were also very dependent upon local weather conditions as rain made watching a movie challenging due to obscured windshields and noisy wiper blades slapping away during the film.
During the heyday of huge cars throughout the 1950s and 60s, the drive-in experience flourished. However, the oil crisis of the 1970s demanded compact cars that were uncomfortable to watch a Hollywood picture show.
As a result, drive-ins changed from family cinemas to focus on teens and those in their early 20s, featuring horror fright films in order to survive and to focus on date nights with just two people, instead of whole families. As a teenager, it was a favourite opportunity for me to have a romantic evening out with an attractive young lady, even in my tiny bright red VW Bug. In my case, the smaller car was a benefit.
Unfortunately, the advent of video players and other forms of media sources kept viewers at home. Since 15 acres of land was required for one screen, the business model of the drive-in became impractical to sustain. Eventually, the lands were sold off for redevelopment and the demise of the drive-in started.
In the USA, there are about 300 drive-in theatres remaining.
However, with the coronavirus changing lives forever, suddenly the business model for the drive-in makes more economical and health related sense today. New drive-in theatres are now opening and the audiences seem ready to return to this form of moving picture experience.
Instead of hanging large boxy speakers with monotone fuzzy sounds mumbling dialogue out of them, the film’s sound tracks are now transmitted in stereo to the car’s FM radio system. Most modern cars come complete with high power, multi-speaker, high fidelity sound systems.
Old, unreliable 35mm film projectors are now replaced with high definition video projectors presenting digital streams of giant images on the bright curved screens.
Drive-in movie theatre operators across Canada are biding their time as they await news from the provincial governments on when they can reopen – and what public health rules they must follow.
Outdoor movie theatres are not on the lists of essential businesses and have not been given the green light to open during phase one of the reopening plans, even though drive-in religious ceremonies are allowed and drive-ins have been authorized to open in several other places in the country, the plans are not aligned coast to coast.
That has not stopped Kevin Marshall, owner of the Skylight Drive-In in Pembroke, Ontario, from planning outdoor movie watching in the age of coronavirus.
“We are getting ready and we’re trying to anticipate what [the provincial government] is going to ask us to do,” said Marshall.
Marshall is developing protocols and plans for his theatre that will allow people to maintain physical distancing and limit interactions between customers and staff as much as possible, he said.
Tickets will be sold online and more washrooms will be offered to limit built-up of the audience in congestion areas. Confections will still be sold as these treats are a huge profit centre for theatres. But, again, social distancing and cleansing of the counters will be essential.
A spokesman for Premier Theatres, which owns a number of Ontario drive-ins, including the Starlite in Stoney Creek says, they aren’t opening until the concessions are allowed to start serving.
Peter Boros noting concession stands are their number one revenue generator.
A City of Hamilton spokesperson confirmed that Starlite was in touch with Hamilton Public Health about food safety and social distancing measures. They said that “business closures ordered under the province’s declaration of emergency apply to specific businesses only.”
Non-essential business closures include restaurants and bars, though take-out and delivery can still operate from locations set up to do so.
It may be that the old ways of the past are now the safe ways of the future. Is the return of the drive-in theatre a short lived fad, or a persistent trend that is showing the way to how we will watch Hollywood blockbuster movies in the years ahead. Only time will tell.
On June 8, 2020, when I visited the Starlite location in Stoney Creek to take the photos for this article, I saw land grading equipment leaving the property. As I walked around, I also saw groundskeepers staff on riding lawn mowers and with weed trimmers grooming the facilities. The marque was populated with three major film titles too. I surmised that something was up.
Contrary to previous statements, on June 9th, Premier Theatres announced that they would be reopening the three screens this coming weekend. However, the concession stands will remain closed due to the virus concerns and the potential liabilities.
And so it begins – the drive-in theatres return!
Jeanneret, T. (2020). Drive-in screens remain in the dark. Newstalk 610 CKTB, iHeart Radio, Bell Media. Retrieved on June 9, 2020 from, https://www.iheartradio.ca/610cktb/news/drive-in-screens-remain-in-the-dark-1.12583357
Jones, R. (2020). Drive-in theatres ready and waiting to start the show. CBC. Retrieved on June 8, 2020 from, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/drive-ins-await-reopening-1.5582717
La Grassa, J. (2020). Can you keep social distance at the drive-in? Starlite Drive-in changes its mind about reopening. CBC News. Retrieved on June 9, 2020 from, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/drive-in-re-open-stoney-creek-starlite-covid-19-1.5504763
Student Resources. (2017). The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (and Where They Are Now). New York Film Academy. Retrieved on June 8, 2020 from, https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-history-of-drive-in-movie-theaters-and-where-they-are-now/
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.