Industry Insight, Uncategorized

The Endangered American Pastime: Drive-In Movies

Attending drive-in movie theatres is one of the most quintessential American pastimes and a huge part of our cultural identity. Cars and movies – it doesn’t get much more American than that.

Sadly drive-in theatres are on the verge of extinction. The first drive-in was built 80 years ago, and now less than 400 remain. Down tremendously from the approximate 4,000 theatres peak nationwide during the late 1950’s.

The cause of the extinction is coming from within the entertainment industry. Hollywood is transitioning away from 35mm film prints to digital, thus forcing drive-in theatres to upgrade their projectors in a few months or close.  Indoor theatres had a 5-year transition period where studios offered breaks for switching to digital prints. According to James Kopp, a drive-in manager in Virginia, studios agreed to a virtual print fee (a ticket subsidy) in February to help drive-ins convert. However, this offer came a little too late as the already struggling drive-ins have less than a year to convert.  As a result, many theatres are closing shop because the cost to convert (over $70,000 a projector) is too high, especially when taking into account the already low demand, limited operation hours, and thin profit margin.

Honda has created “Project Drive-In” in response to the current challenges. Alicia Jones, manager of Honda and Acura Social Marketing at American Honda Motor Co, said “Cars and drive-in theaters go hand-in-hand, and it’s our mission to save this decades-old slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for so many of us.” Honda is creating awareness and donating five digital projectors to struggling theatres. Also a partnership with Sony will allow for a special screening of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 at some Honda dealerships as well as the 5 locations receiving the digital projectors. The correlation between drive-ins and the automobile industry makes the project a good choice for Honda.

Drive-in theatres provide many other benefits besides its association with cars, and with a few tweaks and different marketing techniques it can capitalize on the digital conversion and recover from their investment.


1. Nostalgia: An obvious choice and one similar to the position Honda is taking. My parents went to drive-in movies, I went to drive-in movies as a kid, and hopefully someday I can take my kids to a drive-in movie.

2. Families: For parents with young kids, there aren’t many better options for watching a movie. Young kids get turned away from indoor theatres (I was once when I was a toddler) to avoid any interruptions to others movie going experience. At a drive-in you can watch from inside the car where kids can be loud or take a nap with no problem.

3. Distractions: At a drive-in, you create the environment, which is why it is great for families. You can talk, comment and sing along if you so desire without interrupting other people’s viewing experience. The opposite is also true; you can make sure it is absolutely silent.

4. Cost: Lastly, it is much cheaper for a larger group to go see a drive-in movie. At one theatre the charge was $8 for an adult and $4 for a kid – way below indoor theatre prices and an affordable option for those with large families.



1. Sound: Since screens are forced to convert to a higher quality digital print, might as well offer the better sound too. For example, provide people the option of plugging in their Beats to enjoy the better sound. Higher quality pictures and sound can put them on par with other indoor theatres, so drive-ins should market these new features to demonstrate that consumers don’t need to sacrifice quality when choosing drive-ins.

2. Wi-Fi: To go along with the digital upgrades, add wi-fi.  Hunter Walk, a Silicon Valley VC, stated his ideal movie theatre experience in a Pandodaily article by David Holmes.  He said, “I’d love to watch Pacific Rim in a theater with a bit more light, wi-fi, electricity outlets and a second screen experience. Don’t tell me I’d miss major plot points while scrolling on my iPad – it’s a movie about robots vs. monsters. I can follow along just fine.” Why not cater to the demographic that wants to see a new movie release with the same comforts they enjoy at home; not stuck in a dark, quiet box or waiting several months to rent the movie. It’s great for families with kids, workaholics, and multi-taskers who would like to enrich their experience with a second screen.

3. De-emphasize cars: I don’t want to sound anti-American, but cars shouldn’t be the sole option customers have when seeing an outdoor movie. Allowing people to picnic on a grassy hill or watch from a restaurant rooftop are other possible options.  The Hollywood Cemetery has become a trendy and popular destination that allows people to lay down a blanket and watch a movie outdoors without sitting in a car.

I believe drive-ins provide a unique community experience to watching a movie. It would be a shame to watch a cultural icon disappear before our eyes. It doesn’t seem drive-ins were afforded the same opportunities for a smooth and feasible transition as indoor theatres, so it is up to the consumers to help them out. I encourage readers who agree with my sentiment to support their local drive-in and vote in Honda’s “Project Drive-In.” Maybe visit a drive-in this weekend? I will definitely be seeing an outdoor movie before this summer ends.


Graser, Marc. “Honda on the Move to Help Save Drive-In Theatres.” Variety

Holmes, David. “Why Silicon Valley Should Save Drive-In Movies.” Pandodaily

Nelson, Laura J. “Digital Projection Has Drive-In Movie Theatres Reeling.” Los Angeles Times

“Transition to Digital is Costly Proposition for Drive-In Movie Theatres.” The Trentonian

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