Summer Media: The Drive-in Theater

June 16, 2010
By | 5 Comments

It’s important to remember that “summer media” isn’t always about the media alone, but equally about the experience and the spaces in which we consume and enjoy our media during these balmy and bug filled summer days and nights. There is no doubt that a desirable summer experience, especially on blistering days and humid nights, is taking shelter in the artificially cooled space of the movie theater. Sometimes arbitrarily purchasing a ticket to whatever film may be playing at the time in order to take refuge from the heat, kill a few hours, or catch a film you really wanted to see. When I was younger, I remember the video store, record shop offering a similar sort of pleasure and comfort.

In this post I wanted to espouse the opposite, to advocate for the opportunities to consume media outdoors, namely for the chance to go to the drive-in movie theater. Most drive-ins maintain the seasonal schedule of being open from Memorial Day to Labor Day (end of May-beginning of September) deeming summer the peak time to attend (at least in Northern and Midwestern US states). While the chance to watch films under the stars can be re-created at home with a white sheet and a projector (as my neighbors and I often do on our shared balcony), in parks, and on rooftops, there’s something unique about going to the drive-in, even on bikes! And it’s not just about the blockbuster doubleheader.

Summer at the drive-in in particular is full of high school kids making out in their parents’ cars, the slight smell of engines, grass (sometimes the naughty kind), sweat, and concession stand purchases. So far this summer, movies like Prince of Persia, Robin Hood, The Karate Kid, Going the Distance, Grown Ups, Shrek: The Final Chapter, and Toy Story 3 are scheduled to dominate the screen. Under recognized is that the drive-in is a great place to catch the films you missed in the first run theaters for a cheaper price. Though very few drive-ins maintain the traditional policy of paying per car rather than per person, nevertheless the cost of a ticket buys you two movies for less than the price of one at a multiplex. Additionally, most of these theaters are independently or family owned enterprises, so supporting these local businesses might not be such a bad thing in and of itself. But if the films and the price don’t tempt you, here’s a few other reasons to go forth and patronize your local (or not so local) drive-in while it’s still around.

To start, you’ll be sitting in a piece of history and a dying breed of theater. Though opportunities to watch movies outdoors have expanded in recent years, the outdoor theater as an institution has decreased. Though there seemed to be a resurgence and rescuing of the drive-in during the early 2000’s, the experience of attending a drive-in (beginning in the 1930s and exploding in the 1950s) is steadily decreasing as these theaters continue to be demolished or close their gates each year. Those that suffer this fate are being replaced by mega stores and multiplexes that can take advantage of the large plots of abandoned turf. There’s an unavoidable nostalgia at the drive-in not only for that particular form of theater and experience of movie-going, but also in the glorification of the automobile, the centrality of the radio (though the oldest theaters exclusively used speakers mounted to poles), and the promotion of the night out at the movies as event.

While for some, taking in two varieties of stars simultaneously – the stars of the screen and the sky – might be magical enough. There’s also something intriguing and ethereal about tuning in your radio receiver to a movie soundtrack that’s only accessible at a boundaried geographic location. Additionally, the drive-in coincides with and complicates the trend of “mobile” media, or the act of taking media outside and consuming it on the go, (at the drive-in you’re away from home, but purposefully stationary in a vehicle made for transit). This type of theater offers the patron a unique sort of shared experience – sitting in individual vehicles and watching a shared movie partially echoes Williams’ mobile privatization in some respects. Yet, however you may theoretically interpret the experience there just aren’t too many places within American society that we leave our house and pay a fee in order to be alone, together.

While watching collectively at an indoor movie theater gains you access to reactions by a crowd of people you don’t actually know (which I admittedly love), the privacy of the car allows you to talk to your companion(s) about what you’re watching and interpersonally react to the scenes on the screen without appearing rude. The semi-private, enclosed space of the car allows you to eat or drink whatever you want as odorous as it may be, let your kid go a little wild, bring your pet, answer a phone call (though I don’t recommend it), or spend quality time with your family or a date (without having to worry as much about PDA etiquette in the latter case).

So check out some tips for first timers, find your screen and hit the road!


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5 Responses to “ Summer Media: The Drive-in Theater ”

  1. Alex on June 16, 2010 at 10:22 AM

    I agree absolutely with your encouragement to get outside and see a movie. I blogged about my recent experience taking my 16-yr. old son to see his first drive-in movie, Prince of Persia, chosen because it looked like fun, but too cheesy to pay full theatrical price. It’s certainly a different social experience being in the audience of cars with people sitting inside or in camp chairs with coolers and snacks. My post is at:

    • Germaine Halegoua on June 16, 2010 at 4:08 PM

      Thanks, Alex! I love the vivid account of your experience presented along with your review of the film. I hope your son enjoyed it. And I would be curious to hear what a 16 yr old has to say about a night at the drive-in. I wonder if he’s planning to make a trip back any time soon. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Kelli Marshall on June 17, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    Enjoyed this! A drive-in theatre sits less than a block from our house (we can see one of the screens from our back patio!) But we’ve never visited it. Here’s hoping your post will move us in that direction… =)

    • Germaine Halegoua on June 19, 2010 at 11:41 PM

      I hope so! Although watching the drive-in movie theater screen from home sounds amazing as well.

  3. Megan Biddinger on June 17, 2010 at 5:47 PM

    Thanks for this post, Germaine. You’re right that there is something particular (and yet difficult to articulate–though you lay out a number of factors very clearly) about the drive-in that really captures people’s imaginations. When the aged drive-in in my hometown (in NJ’s deep South) re-opened a few years back even the NY Times took note. I think it was partly due to the scarcity of drive-ins, but also because of their allure.

    I second Kelli’s hope that this post will motivate me to take in some film out of doors this Summer. I get the sense that many folks are highly intrigued by going to the drive-in (or other outdoor viewing venue), but don’t make it even when they are close. I wonder if the different modes of viewing they make possible actually make it seem like we must put in work (pack the cooler and such) to maximize the pleasure.