The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (and Where They Are Now)

Many people hear stories of their grandparents going to the drive-in theater for a Friday night hangout, but do you know the history of the classic movie experience?

Though there were drive-ins as early as the 1910s, the first patented drive-in was opened on June 6, 1933 by Richard Hollingshead in New Jersey. He created it as a solution for people unable to comfortably fit into smaller movie theater seats after creating a mini drive-in for his mother. Appealing to families, Hollingshead advertised his drive-in as a place where “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”

The success of Hollingshead’s drive-in caused more and more drive-ins to appear in every state in the country, and spread internationally as well. Drive-ins gained immense popularity 20 years later during the 1950s and ‘60s with the Baby Boomer generation. There were over 4,000 drive-ins throughout the U.S. and most were located in rural areas. They maintained popularity as both a space for families to spend time with each other as well as an affordable date night option.

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Drive-ins could only show movies during certain times of the year and were dependent on having decent weather. During the ‘70s, people downsized their cars during the oil crisis in order to save money on the inflated cost of gas, making it uncomfortable to watch movies at the drive-in. To make up for lost revenue, drive-ins began losing their family-friendly atmosphere by showing exploitation films like slasher horrors as well as adult content. The development of the VCR made it more appealing to stay at home and watch movies without paying for a movie at the drive-in.

Slowly, drive-ins began to lose their appeal. In order to have an effective drive-in, it had to be on at least 15 acres of land. Economically speaking, it became more practical for owners to close down their drive-ins in order to sell their land to developers to build malls or multi-building complexes.

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Even though drive-ins are not nearly as popular as they used to be (with some arguing that they will be obsolete within the next decade), there are still drive-ins in business throughout the country. Modern drive-ins vary, but many show current films as well as older films. A lot of them also plan double feature nights. Just like a classic drive-in and a regular theater, they sell refreshments like popcorn, candy and soda. Some even have playgrounds for families to entertain their children.

For now, there are over 300 drive-ins still in operation. Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania have the most drive-ins still in operation in the U.S., with each state having almost 30 left. Unfortunately, Hawaii, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Delaware, and Louisiana no longer have any that are still in business. But no matter the fate of America’s drive-ins, they will always be a nostalgic and cultural icon.

Learn more about filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.

The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (and Where They Are Now) by