In a few hours, cars will roll into the Family Drive-In Theatre and settle into neat lines next to row upon row of waist-high speaker poles. For tonight at least, that is just as it was during the first show in 1956.
“These speakers and posts are getting harder to deal with because there’s only one manufacturer that still makes the parts,” says James Kopp, manager of the Stephens City, Va., theater. “It’s in Kansas City.”
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.
The studios thought that drive-ins would die, Kopp says. “They never thought they would go digital. How are you going to get 5.1 digital surround-sound in an outdoor environment?”
In February, the studios agreed to a virtual print fee — a sort of subsidy on ticket sales — to help drive-ins convert. Kopp put his hand out to Hollywood along with other operators across the country, but he’s not altogether happy about the terms. “They gave us a short time frame to do it in. It was like, ‘Hey, you gave the multiplexes five years to do this, and you are only giving us three or four months. That’s not fair.’ ”
“I’m old school. I like film,” projectionist Harold Jett says, standing outside the Family Drive-In ticket booth, waiting for it to get just a little darker. “But we have to do it, no question. The film companies ain’t gonna make prints no more.”
Drive-ins may need the upgrade to compete. Jimmy Pence, who helps park cars, mentions a new 12-screen theater, run by the Carmike Cinemas chain, over at the Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester. “I think people will feel more at ease here, though,” he says. “I think we’ll be okay.”
John Heidel, another true believer in the drive-in, has already steered into the digital era. While others are putting up multiplexes, he built the Goochland, a park with a 40-by-80-foot screen in Hadensville, Va., halfway between Richmond and Charlottesville. It’s one of the most recent drive-in “new builds” in America, established in 2009. “It’s the curiosity that grabs them,” he says, “and then they are surprised at the good time they have, so they keep coming back.”
The Goochland and the Family Drive-In are two of nine outdoor screens in Virginia. Of those, several are icons built during the classic 1950s era, including Hull’s in Lexington, the nation’s only community-owned nonprofit drive-in, and the Moonlite in Abingdon, which was built in 1949 and sits on the National Register of Historic Places. (The only drive-in in Maryland is the vaunted Bengies in Middle River, made famous by Baltimore director John Waters in the film “Cecil B. Demented.”)
Most of the regional drive-ins have gone high-tech or intend to. Hull’s, the Family Drive-In’s nearest competition 120 miles away, has crossed the digital divide, as has the Starlite in Christiansburg and Bengies.
“The thing I didn’t foresee are the people who will drive an hour to come,” Heidel says. But even at his 350-car lot, which is enjoying record summer turnout, the profit margin is low and dependent on weather and other factors. “We’ve often gotten by on a wing and a prayer.”
Kopp, who fondly remembers his teenage years hanging out at Fairfax’s long-gone Super 29 (now a Costco), is a self-professed “drive-in nut.” He leases the 57-year-old movie park, the only two-screener in the region, from the son of its founder. A lifelong enthusiast, he was resurrecting a Henderson, N.C., theater when he got the offer to take over the Family Drive-In four years ago. “The Family was always my dream drive-in to run,” he says, “and Tim Dalke, the owner, knew it.”
The Family, like many surviving drive-ins, now screens first-run films, often the latest blockbusters.
“Nowadays, if you don’t capture an audience in the first four weeks of the film’s release,” Kopp says, “you’ve lost them.”
The theater used to show second-run movies because they were cheaper to rent, but now “second-run” means Netflix to most moviegoers.
Many of tonight’s viewers have come hours early to strategically place their patio chairs. A four-wheel procession funnels past the ticket booth with patrons waiting to pay $8 each ($4 per child).
Kopp says that teenagers rarely try to sneak in the trunk to avoid paying admission to today’s drive-ins. “Not like I did anyway. It’s more family-oriented now,” he says. “There’s not so much of the teenage ‘passion pit.’ ”
Screen one, which fits 240 cars, offers a repeat of the double feature of “Fast and Furious 6” and “The Hangover 3.” The second, smaller screen, can hold 144 cars for the animated “Epic” and Owen Wilson’s comedy “The Internship.”
Knowing what will attract a drive-in audience is an art. It isn’t always what sells at the multiplex. Kopp, who sits on the board of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, could tell that “Iron Man 3” and the latest “Star Trek” sequel would be big, but . . . “Harry Potter”? “Not so much,” he says. “Those films are good the first weekend, and then they fall off.”
He works with a booking agent to get the best titles at the best rate, and he’s open to ideas from customers. “Last year, I had a bunch of them that wanted me to show an artsy movie, ‘Moonrise Kingdom,’ ” he says, “and it did very well.” The film is the loss leader, though. Ask any theater manager — it’s all about the popcorn.
Kopp steps into the concession booth and introduces the “cast members” that work food service, including his daughter Melissa, who is on funnel cake detail. “This is where your profits are,” he says, explaining that the studios take the majority of theater ticket sales. “And that’s for indoor theaters, too. We could pay up to 70 percent of our box office, and then we’ve got film rental costs, so we’re getting $2.40 out of $8. To keep the theater alive, I’ve got to sell a lot of popcorn, soda, hot dogs and things like that.” Since he began leasing the park four years ago, Kopp has hired more staff, instituted a food express lane, beefed up his social media (the Family Facebook page boasts 13,000 “likes”) and made sure that credit cards were honored at the ticket booth and concession stand. “There was a time when the theater was cash only,” he says.
Pizza is popular, so Kopp struck a deal with Italian Touch Pizzeria, a local joint, to provide the pies. A cheese slice goes for $2.50 or a whole pie for $13.50. Heeding requests for healthful fare, the theater offers GO Picnic meals — with black bean dip, hummus and peanut butter. Admittedly, they aren’t flying off the shelves.
Kopp yells out to Sarah Finchan, who has been dispensing refreshments at the Family Drive-In for nine years. “What’s our number one seller, Sarah?”
“Fries,” she yells back.
Running a drive-in can be tough. Kopp had to borrow $1,700 from a friend to start the season. “I don’t make a salary,” he says. “What money comes in goes straight to the drive-in.” He says his staff payroll is about $72,000 annually. “By the time you add the Virginia sales taxes, 9 percent meals tax that is going to go up to 9.3 percent, it’s a lot,” he says. “People ask me how much did you gross last year, and I say $459,000. But when you start adding up all the expenses . . . I don’t think the theater industry has a lot of profit in it.”
Closed in winter, the Family Drive-In runs weekends in the spring and fall months and is open seven nights a week from June to August.
“They say that the most successful businesses have to be run with passion,” he says, before breaking up in laughter. “But there are times when I think I need to have my head examined!”
Grinning, he explains that he worked for 23 years at the Library of Congress, at one time doing three managers’ jobs. “I was busting my butt. But I’m busting my butt more now,” he says. “I go to bed thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it, and I’m constantly doing something for it.”
Kopp introduces Nancy Pence, who is in the ticket booth, the crew’s longest-standing employee, and Jimmy Pence’s mom. She came to the drive-in in 1989 with her projectionist husband, Jay (who died in March). “I’ve been here as long as the second screen,” she says.
A man in a baseball cap pulls up in a pickup truck with a cab full of kids.
“How much for a 2-year old?” he asks.
“Nothing,” Pence replies.
“If I want, I can get the movie online,” the man says as he pays for his brood. “I came for the experience. I’ve never been to a drive-in before.”
Family Drive-In Theatre, 5890 Valley Pike/U.S. 11, Stephens City, Va., 540-665-6982; thefamilydriveintheatre.com.