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If the drive-in movie theater survives as a viable commercial cinema venue, it will be in large part because of the pluck of people like Jim Kopp, a retired Library of Congress logistics manager who runs the Family Drive-In in Stephens City, Va.
“I always had a passion for drive-in theaters that started as a child,” said Kopp, who bought his first drive-in with his wife, Megan, in Henderson, N.C., on eBay seven years ago.
In 2009, the couple purchased the Family Drive-In, and, after a couple of years going back and forth between Stephens City and the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater, they sold the Henderson venue in 2011 and concentrated on the Family Drive-In, which is located about an hour and a half from Washington and holds about 400 cars.
The high-water mark for commercial drive-ins in the United States was 4,063, in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. The association’s most recent numbers, as of March 13, put the number at 357.
The industry touts figures showing the worst is behind it, with drive-ins reopening and new construction after decades of decline. But the challenges are still daunting.
“The real threat is the convergence to digital cinema,” said April Wright, a filmmaker and director of “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie.”
Indoor theaters face steep costs — ranging from $75,000 up — to convert to digital. Drive-ins face extra costs on top of that, because of the need to have special facilities that are safe for digital servers. “I think the industry is going to take a hit,” Wright said.
However, such a conversion will likely help drive-ins in the long run. “The picture is perfect,” she said of digital projection, adding that the threat of residual light that encroaches on drive-in screens is not as much of an issue with digital.
There’s also the maintenance side. “You don’t need the technical skills,” she said, of knowing how to operate equipment that dates back sometimes more than half a century.
That brings the story back to Kopp, who, while technically retired, is investing in the Family Drive-In and hopes to make the transition from his 1940s-era Peerless film projector to digital in the next two months.
He estimates it will cost him about $139,800, and he’s financing the change to stay in business.
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.