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Leaving your heart at the drive-in
Land prices and short seasons make it tough, but the industry sees a glimmer of a revival.
July 4, 2003: 11:36 AM EDT
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

WARWICK, N.Y. (CNN/Money) - As an industry, drive-in movie theaters tend to attract romantic types. Like a second marriage, the business can seem a triumph of hope over experience.

Take Beth Wilson. Her family has owned the Warwick, N.Y., drive-in since 1976, and working for the business is practically the only job she's ever had.

Patrons at Warwick, N.Y., drive-in greet friends before the recent Friday night show.  
Patrons at Warwick, N.Y., drive-in greet friends before the recent Friday night show.

Their theater is the closest drive-in to New York City, about 46 miles away. But it's a long 46 miles, with the last third of it over winding two-lane highways in the Ramapo Mountains.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd took down the screen of another drive-in the Wilsons operated in Middletown, N.Y. They were forced to close it, because they didn't have the $150,000 it would have taken to replace the screen.

The three-screen theater in Warwick has survived more modest disasters, such as this year's wet weekends that brought some rain every weekend until the last weekend in June.

"The rain kills us," she said. "Memorial Day weekend is normally our kickoff for the summer season, but it was a terrible weekend because of a rain. We did probably a third of what we should have done."

Still, she doesn't think about getting out. "It's very close to my heart," she said.

Modest recovery

Seventy years ago, the world's first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, N.J. Today, the industry has only a fraction of its former strength and sex appeal, and depends on loving friends and family members to nurse it along. Even so, it is too soon to write the obituary.

At their high-water mark in 1958, drive-ins accounted for more than 4,000 movie screens. Today, they amount to less than 2 percent of all U.S. movie screens. There are fewer than 500 drive-ins with a total of 667 screens nationwide, according to the United Drive-In Theaters Owners Association. Four states, including birthplace New Jersey, have no drive-ins left at all.

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For the enthusiasts who still own drive-ins, the UDITOA is part trade group -- and part support group.

The organization's leaders say much of the decline has bottomed out. In fact, an ever-so-slight rebound may even be taking place. Since 1990, 40 closed drive-ins have reopened, and another 16 new ones have been built. Several others hope to open this year.

"We hope the trend continues with reopens and new builds. But we realize realistically we can't hold onto all drive-ins we have now," said Randy Loy, executive director of UDITOA. "Some developer will come in and offer a lot of money for some of these sites."

Real estate values may be the biggest of the concept's many disadvantages. As land prices soar in more populated areas, drive-ins become worth more as a megaplexes or other businesses. A short viewing season in much of the country is another problem. Even daylight-saving time works against the industry, because it pushes the first show time back to about 9 p.m. for much of the summer.

Labor of love

For all their challenges, drive-in owners are a smitten bunch. When retirement time comes, for example, many look to sell to someone who will keep the business going rather than pay top price.

That's how Walt Effinger, vice president of UDITOA and owner of a drive-in in Lancaster, Ohio, bought his business eight years ago.

Miki O'Shea said she'd be sad if the drive-ins were no longer available for her and her family.  
Miki O'Shea said she'd be sad if the drive-ins were no longer available for her and her family.

"You have to have it in your blood, enjoy what you do," said Effinger, 55. "I'm going to be at it least another 10 years, probably for as long as people keep wanting to come out, I imagine."

Effinger's father also had a drive-in, where he worked as a boy. Many owners also are second- or even third-generation proprietors who learned to love the business at a young age.

Drive-in owners say their selling points to customers include lower ticket prices and the free second features that megaplexes no longer offer. Parents can also bring children along and let them fall asleep in the car, rather than hiring a sitter.

Even so, love not money will help drive-ins survive. Most consumers probably value the charm of the experience as much as anything else.

On an unusually clear Friday night in early June, the three fields below the screens of Warwick Drive-in were full of cars, minivans and sport/utility vehicles. Many movie goers sat on chairs outside their cars or lay across the back.

Just about all the patrons said they'd prefer to see a movie at a drive-in than a modern indoor theater. Many said they drove past indoor theaters showing the same features on the way to the drive-in.

"It's a great time for the kids," said Miki O'Shea, who came from about 20 minutes away with her family to see "Finding Nemo."

"My older son has already seen 'Nemo,' but my younger kids wanted to see it and they can't sit through a feature at a movie theater," she said. "We let them play and run around, we meet the neighbors here and make friends.

"We did this a lot when we were young, but they're pretty much washed up except for a few places," O'Shea lamented. "I'd hate to see this go."  Top of page

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