Patrons park next to these four-foot-tall poles and wait for the sun to drop and the movie to roll. They could listen to the movie on FM radio, but some tune in the old-fashioned way. “When they work, that is,” Kopp says, with a chuckle.
Would the 7½-acre park ever get rid of these throwbacks?
“Heck no. These classic speakers are part of the drive-in theater experience,” he says, with a distinctive drawl that turns his R’s into ahs.
Kopp is all about keeping alive the drive-in theater experience.
This summer marks the 80th birthday of drive-in movies. The first theater opened in Pennsauken, N.J., in June 1933. (Trivia: There are no drive-ins left in New Jersey.) The number of outdoor theaters peaked at 4,000 nationwide in 1958. Today, there are about 360. But in some rural locales, such as Stephens City, outdoor viewing never went out of style.
“We turned so many cars away last weekend,” Kopp says with a wide grin. They had rolled in for the combo of “Fast and Furious 6” and “The Hangover 3.” “We sold out Friday, Saturday, Sunday. It was a record weekend for us. $38,000. We haven’t done that kind of revenue in the four years I’ve been running the place.” (In the weeks to follow, the theater would score similar sell-outs with “Monsters University,” “Man of Steel” and “Despicable Me 2.”)
Despite the resurgent popularity, drive-in theaters face a 21st-century problem that’s been unreeling for some time: the end of film. Appearing this summer, at drive-ins across America, are the final days of 35mm. To stay in business, theaters will need to convert to digital technology — an expensive prospect for these seasonal operators.
“I have a quote of $139,817 to go digital,” Kopp says. “We need two projectors for our two screens. It’s expensive.”
He walks into one of the theater’s two projection booths. Here, a huge reel holding a 35mm celluloid ribbon on its side sits alongside a projector that looks like a prop from “War of the Worlds.”
This won’t be the scene when the Family Drive-In goes high-tech Aug. 5. Technicians from Christie Digital will come and replace the open metal parts and whirring shutters with two sleek and noiseless “black box” projection units.
This pricey upgrade may prove to be the final reel for other drive-ins. Kipp Sherer, who covers the industry at Drive-ins.com, says as many as 20 percent of America’s outdoor screens could go dark next year because Hollywood studios will no longer make celluloid prints for their archaic monster 35mm projectors to run.
“For a lot of the small mom-and-pop drive-ins, it’s just too expensive to convert,” Sherer says, adding that many owners nationwide are embarking on grass-roots funding campaigns to make the switch. “The studios recently came out with some financing options so that they can continue. Originally, they were only helping indoor theaters to convert. . . . It’s a lot less for an indoor theater, which is one reason they weren’t doing it for the drive-ins.” Projection units for outdoor theaters need to produce four times more light, so the equipment costs more.