I don’t know how this campaign eluded me until now, when the
summer is almost over, but a friend just sent me a link to a website touting a
promotion by Honda to help save America’s remaining drive-in movie theaters.
How? By raising money to purchase digital projectors so they can stay in
business. (By voting for your favorites, you qualify them to win complete new
systems courtesy of Honda.) Just like “hardtops,” especially in seasonal
communities, the cost of digital equipment is beyond the reach of many drive-in
owners. A number of the outdoor theaters that do survive are either mom &
pop outfits, run as a labor of love, or operated as non-profits by their
communities as a gathering place for families during the summer months.
A decade ago, a film industry think tank agreed that if digital projection were to replace traditional 35mm film, the cost should be borne by the studios, but the sudden success of 3-D enabled those Hollywood distributors to get theater owners to foot the bill, lest they lose out on a new profit stream. Of course, that stream has diminished to a trickle as the public has lost interest in 3-D, but the die is cast: no theater chain could afford to say no to digital projection when it was the only way to show hit 3-D titles like Avatar. Is it any wonder the people who show movies are always grappling with the people who make and circulate them?
As a baby boomer, I grew up in the heyday of drive-ins. I remember my parents putting my brother and me in our pajamas and toting us off to the outdoor screen in Paramus, New Jersey (now long gone), where we would usually fall asleep at some point during the program. I can’t forget the garish ads for even more garish-looking refreshments, and the fact that when you looked up a movie’s showtime in the local newspaper, chances are it would say “dusk.”
I vividly recall the crackling of the always-inferior portable speakers that hung in our car window, but my strongest association with drive-in movies is the constant presence of mosquitoes.
So why should I have any fondness for this once-forward-thinking, now quaint presentation of movies? Call it rose-colored nostalgia, if you like, but it was an experience like no other, a genuine slice of Americana.
If you want to relive those memories, or learn what it was that captured the imagination of post-War moviegoers, I heartily recommend Don and Susan Sanders’ book The American Drive-In Movie Theater, along with their companion documentary, Drive-In Movie Memories (in which I appear), written and directed by Kurt Kuenne. It’s available for instant viewing at Amazon.com.