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A Drive-In Movie Reaches for the Future

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
The Family Drive-In movie theater just off Route 11 in Stephens City, Va., is the last drive-in operating in the Shenandoah Valley. The drive-in has operated nonstop for 57 years, holds 434 cars and has two screens.

Still, he acknowledges, not all drive-ins can do the same. “None of us are opposed to going digital. It’s going to be real good. It’ll save time. But the cost of it is a killer,” he said. “Whenever you get a small-town theater that only brings in 30, 40 thousand dollars, it’s going to be hard to spend that kind of money to invest. That’s two Escalade Cadillacs!”

Still, Kopp says business is good. “My theater has seen some of the best attendance in years. ... We’re getting families that are coming here,” he said, recounting the story of a man who brought his family and told Kopp he hadn’t been to a drive-in in 30 years. After the show, he told Kopp he’d be back.

“We do have a very loyal customer base from Winchester, Shenandoah Valley,” he said. “Usually, on the weekdays, I get the more local crowd. On the weekend we get people coming quite a ways.”

Wright said the type of movies Hollywood is now specializing in lend well to drive-ins that show first- and second-run movies.

“Event kind of movies play well to the drive-in scene,” she said, giving as examples animated and superhero fare.

Kopp agreed. “I’ve never seen so many animated films for families in the six years I’ve been doing this,” he said, citing “Despicable Me 2” and “Monsters University” as recent examples. He also said serials like the “Fast and Furious” franchise play well. Such movies hark back to the heyday of exploitation drive-in days, when filmmakers like Roger Corman populated the screens with smash-em-up car movies and horror screamers.

Wright said the cyclical nature of the industry might swing back to drive-ins’ favor, saying several cities are looking to repurpose land that is in disuse. “A lot of drive-ins fell to big-box retailers,” as land costs soared and suburban sprawl overtook rural areas that provided drive-ins a haven, she said. Now a lot of those big-box stores have gone under, and the shopping centers they occupy are largely vacant. “I wonder,” Wright mused, if some of those areas might revert.

In the meantime, expect Kopp to keep his drive-in open for anyone who’s up for the truly all-American experience of watching a movie under the stars, despite the odds.

“Y’know. You gotta have some fun with it,” he said.

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