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Drive-in Theaters Enjoy a Revival

Outdoor movie theaters are a main attraction for entrepreneurs and spectators

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  |  If we build it, will they come? Rod and Donna Saunders took a chance — and they came.

Long after most drive-in movie theaters had shuttered their screens, the couple opted to open one. The seasonal business would supplement Rod’s salary as a physical education teacher and help their three children through college.

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“We built it from scratch in our backyard,” says Donna Saunders, of Liberty Center, Ohio, about 25 miles west of Toledo. “We’re literally in the middle of a cornfield, and we live on a one-lane road.”

The couple, both 46, aptly named it the Field of Dreams Drive-in Theater. Thinking big, they nonetheless spent prudently. Instead of constructing a concession building, they bought a serving truck and bake fresh pizzas, which they deliver to customers’ cars. For $10 extra, they reserve preferred viewing spots.

The Saunders’ initial investment of $75,000 in the two-screen venue with different double features is paying off. Around the debut in July 2007, 50 to 60 cars came per show. Now 200 autos pull in on average, Donna estimates. “We have sold out more times this season than all previous years combined.”

New theaters and reopenings

The Saunders’ success proves that throwbacks can make comebacks. Since the late 1990s, nearly 100 drive-in movie theaters have set reels in motion. Some are brand-new operations, while others are reopenings of closed establishments. Owners and spectators alike relish a revival of drive-ins—no matter how large or small.

“Things go in circles,” says Don Sanders, 58, a Fort Worth, Texas, resident who produced two books and a PBS film about drive-ins. “People yearn for a time when they don’t have so much pressure, and they can do things outdoors with other people and not be afraid.”

Watching grandparents cherish moments at the movies with grandchildren is a delight for Susan Magocs. Many outdoor theaters foster a family atmosphere—and some allow dogs. There’s “nothing more wonderful than a great starry night, a cool breeze. That’s a perfect drive-in night,” says Magocs, 52, who owns the Capri Drive-in Theater with her husband, Tom, in Coldwater, Mich., near the Indiana border. His parents built it in 1964.

The American drive-in era began in 1933, when the first theater opened in Camden, N.J. It survived three years—long enough for the concept to catch on elsewhere. In 1934, Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre set up shop in Orefield, Pa., and soon became America’s oldest, with operations still in full swing today. The third and current owners, Paul F. Geissinger and his wife, Susan, acquired the venue in 1984.

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By the late 1950s to early 1960s, more than 4,000 U.S. drive-ins mesmerized moviegoers. Adults could bring children without worrying as much about noise complaints. And when these youngsters blossomed into teenagers, the license to drive steered them back on date nights.

Slowly, the drive-in mystique would fall prey to progress. The 1970s and 1980s saw the extinction of many theaters. Because some stood on coveted land, developers extended offers that drive-in owners couldn’t decline. Others suffered as television advanced and video players transformed living rooms into cozy screening rooms.

Back in vogue

But in the late 1990s, that nostalgic spark reignited. New outdoor theater constructions and reopenings of dormant drive-ins have compensated for closings. “We’ve been hanging around the 390 to 400 number of theaters for the last 15 years,” says Geissinger, 57, president of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association.

At Shankweiler’s, cars line up at 5 p.m.—well before the 9 p.m. show. A new release such as Toy Story 3 often sells out early. “We get people from two hours away,” says Geissinger, who poured almost $250,000 into upgrades over 26 years. “The only thing we haven’t done is tear down the concession building.” While the original structure is long gone, the 1955 building still stands.

“You have to be a shrewd businessman and capitalize the dollars on every square foot,” says Jim Stacy, the 40-year-old general manager of Atlanta’s Starlight Six Drive-in. The six-screen lot—which attracts up to 2,300 cars on a peak summer Saturday night—hosts a flea market on Saturday and Sunday and two daylong festivals during the year.

“You got an empty lot during the day; you might as well have it earning money,” says Stacy, who lives on the property. “The movie theater business is a razor-thin margin.” Unlike most drive-ins, Starlight Six stays open year-round, except on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The family business has survived since 1949.

From reels to digital

Drive-ins depend on entrepreneurial vision to thrive. In November 2009, Keith Zednik, 32, and three older investors—all from the Chicago area—saw potential when they purchased the Spud Drive In for an undisclosed sum. Located in Driggs, Idaho, near the Wyoming border, the venue has existed since 1953.

“The drive-in was in some major need of TLC, so we’ve definitely been improving the grounds all around,” says Zednik, who relocated to be the general manager. There were “glaring big holes that we patched up.”

Transitioning from 35-millimeter film to digital projection has been an expensive overhaul, which is why most drive-ins hold off on the upgrade. The cost: upward of six figures, says Zednik, whose theater went digital in early July.

Recognizing that the film industry is headed in the digital direction, Zednik says, “It’s always better to be ahead of the technology, and ahead of the curve, than to kind of get left behind.” The popcorn will keep on popping for a long time, he hopes. “We’re now a viable business for the next 50 years.”

Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.

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