Image courtesy of Brian Morger and SunUp Corp.
By L. Abigail Jones

How Digital (Tried) to Kill the Video Star

Richard Hollingshead, like all visionaries, must have looked like a cautionary tale waiting to happen.

A young sales manager in his father’s Auto Parts store in Camden, New Jersey, Hollingshead was an avid movie buff; however, his portly mother couldn’t attend the theater with him, so he merged his interests to assist her. He anchored a 1928 Kodak projector to the hood of his car, placed a radio behind some hanging sheets, and lit up his driveway.
Instead of being committed by his neighbors, Hollingshead applied for a patent, and in 1933, an American tradition
was created.

At its height, the phenomenon would spawn 4,063 theaters nationwide, contribute to a revolution in sound technology, and create a community tradition spanning generations.

Yet, 82 years after the initial screening, remnants of Hollingshead’s invention now lie scattered and rotting in high-grass graveyards across America. Less than 400 functional drive-ins remain in the U.S., and the number has steadily declined.

Growing up in rural Montana, I didn’t know that the venue for one of my favorite pastimes was fading. I secured my first job at one of the last “Park-In” theaters in the state and settled into a glorious summer of work at an American institution, serving grilled-cheese sandwiches and ice cream in the popcorn-and-cigarette air. People gathered in the uncertain Montana weather, their tires thumping over the cattle guard as my manager counted cash at the gate. As the sun finally sank around 10:30, speakers clunked over the edge of glass windows and a disembodied, muffled voice issued out:

“Please turn your lights out. We’re starting the show.”

Inevitably, someone forgot. Shouting ensued. One person honked, then everyone honked. The offender’s headlights finally switched off, and the rolling click of the projection equipment invaded the concession stand. When the crowd dwindled, I’d wash my hands, wade out into the grass and the wind, and look up at the stars.

While I listened to the movies, I didn’t really watch them. What fascinated me were the people, seated in lawn chairs and backward pickup trucks, some piled up in sleeping bags and others reclining on the hoods of their cars. Mothers gossiped. A group of cowboys parked next to shouting teenagers on checkered blankets, children weaving between the vehicles of elderly couples in a game of tag, all illuminated by the massive glow of the figures on the screen.

My interest wasn’t really about the movie. It was about the event, about an entire community of people from disparate social groups, sitting together under bright Montana stars for the sake of a story.

It was 1997. I didn’t know that, despite the construction of some new theaters across the U.S., historians would mark it as the beginning of the end for drive-in theaters.

At its peak, the drive-in phenomenon was a spectacle of gaudy delight. Through the 1960s, theaters provided an affordable viewing experience with a carnival atmosphere, and the adherents were in the thousands. Some theaters added amusement park rides, restaurants, and playground equipment. Despite occasional downturns, the theaters survived the ‘70s, but the decline became more pervasive in the 1980s.

If “Video Killed the Radio Star,” it also contributed to the decline of drive-ins, creating entertainment systems that favored private audiences over community. It was a symptom of things to come, a shift not only in technology but in society.

While theater owners attribute the decline of drive-ins to any number of difficulties – the encroachment of civilization and the price of land, inconsistent release dates, dwindling interest – the worst culprit was the innovation of digital technology. In 2013, film studios saved billions of dollars by converting film to hard drives. Movies that previously cost $1,000 a reel could be digitized for $100, but the cost for new equipment was passed on to individual owners.

Because drive-in theaters have larger screens and require four times the light than indoor screens, the new equipment generates more heat. The units require cooling vents and dust filters, and the startup cost for an upgrade is between $75,000 to $100,000, not to mention the price hike for daily operating cost.

Financing is usually not readily available for seasonal businesses, especially when the season in Montana is only a few short months. But the message was clear, as one owner stated: “It was switch, or quit.” To date, it appears Montana has at least two remaining drive-in theaters: The Silverbow in Butte and Amusement Park Drive-in near Laurel. Both have dual screens with digital technology and still maintain a commitment to providing a quality experience.

What started with a 1928 Kodak projector and a white sheet ended with digital technology too expensive for dedicated owners to afford. Yet, hope remains. While many businesses were forced to fold in the wake of the digital changeover, some have held on long enough to create renewed interest as enthusiasts fight back.

Remodels are funded through Kickstarter campaigns, and in 2014, the Johnny Rocket’s food chain made a commitment to partner with USA Drive-ins to open 200 new facilities by 2018.

What was kitsch has become vintage, and despite the dire predictions, drive-in theaters seem to be enjoying a resurgence, morphing from forgotten fad to nostalgic treasure. While historians can clearly chart the past, here’s hoping that they’re wrong about the future.