At the drive-in: can the old-school movie experience survive the digital age?

August 24, 2012

Download Story

Friday on Eight Forty-Eight we're going to talk about the future of drive-ins. Now, I've had plenty of good times at drive-in movies, from fighting with my siblings in the back of the car to making out with boyfriends in the front. But as a car-less Chicagoan, they're mainly a thing of my past.

Which is a shame, because the drive-in seems to have found ways to adapt to changing technology and audiences, while retaining many of the old-school elements that made them so appealing in the first place, from foil-wrapped, warmed-over burgers to double features – for the price of one!!

What changes have come are welcome. Remember those clunky and sometimes hard to hear speakers? Swapped out for FM stereo radio in most cases, though some drive-ins keep a few of the old tin cans on hand (often near the concessions stand in case you wanna hang out and watch from there). And if you're a purist, you can go totally retro at the very vintage Route 34 Drive-in in Earlville, Illinois, which has kept all of its speakers.

Still, there aren't many drive-ins left here in Illinois - just an even dozen according to this list. At the height of their popularity in the 1950s, we had well over 100. This isn't news; drive-ins began to "go dark" in the eighties. Hmm, yet another crime to hang on that decade!

The future of the drive-in

In a kind of technological last laugh, the drive-in has outlasted at least one media that helped to spark its decline, the VCR. But the biggest threat now is digital conversion. Mike Harroun of the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-in will join us on Eight Forty-Eight Friday. He's currently running a Kickstarter to try and raise funds for a digital projector. 

Still, there are signs of life at the drive-in theatres. This New York Times article suggests they can make economic sense, for owners and attendees. We're on track with that trend here. Some of the remaining local drive-ins were restored in the early to mid-aughts. And the Galva Autovue Drive-In, despite its retro-sounding name, was built in 2003. Funnily enough the Galva website's aesthetic is far more in keeping with the mid- to late-'90s. Perhaps because that's the online standard among most drive-in theatres?

The format is also popping up in other places. The Hideout, along with the Logan Square International Film Series, has played host to the Bike-in Movie Theatre for the past two summers, though the season's done for this year. And if you care less about the car and more about watching movies under the stars, there are lots of opportunities, including the city-wide Chicago Park District's Summer Movies in the Park (just ignore this here curmudgeon).

Summer's almost over so if you haven't made it to a drive-in yet, better get cracking! Best to check ahead to find out what's playing, whether they take credit cards, and if it's okay to bring your own food (the Cascade actually provides a grill for your convenience!). Just remember, concessions are just as important a revenue stream for drive-ins as they are for regular or "hardtop" theatres, so if you want to keep your local going, you should think about buying at least one burger on site.

And for a taste of drive-in times past and present check out this great compilation of vintage intermission trailers - you'll learn a lot about drive-in do's and don'ts if you've never been!