These days, going to a drive-in movie theatre is about the experience
The weather this summer may be unpredictable for outdoor activities, but you know where the climate is almost always perfect? In your car. So, take advantage of a cheap and fun idea you already know but have probably forgotten about: Go to a drive-in movie.
While real estate values in larger centres have priced out many of the venues you might recall from your youth, the industry is still alive and well in many parts of Canada. Where else can you bring your kids, your dog, your date (or all of the above) and watch a brand new release in a vintage setting?
“There used to be eight to 10 venues in the Toronto area alone, but it’s always a land cost issue,” Brian Allen, president of Premier Theatres, which owns five drive-ins in southern Ontario, explains. You can find drive-ins in most Canadian provinces, with the exception of Alberta and the Yukon. Click here to find the one nearest to you.
Families make it a ‘tailgate party’ for kids and adults at Docks Drive-In in Toronto.
Allen is clear about other factors at play in the decline in venues. If you want to screen first-run movies at your facility – and to compete, you have to – you need to invest in the latest digital equipment. That can get costly for a business that isn’t year round, and is also weather-dependent in many instances. A little rain can be worked around, but a deluge will cancel the evening.
For decades, drive-ins used the same 35-millimetre films as everyone else. But the switch to digital has proven too expensive for many of those already operating on the margins of the movie industry. When the changes in format were done in 2013, it was estimated it would cost about US$70,000 per screen to accommodate what Hollywood would be sending.
The first drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey in 1933. Numbers peaked during the 1950s and ’60s at around 4,600 venues nationwide. Today in the U.S., there are just more than 300 operating, while Canada has about 30. While many have predicted the demise of the drive-in, and the numbers certainly bear out that trajectory, some are embracing the changes and investing in creating a new version of an old pastime.
“We’re selling the whole experience, not just a movie,” explains Allen. “We have modern playgrounds, immaculate facilities, and great concession offerings. We welcome dogs, we play the national anthem before the movies begin. It’s an entire experience people are after.”
You needn’t worry about the down-in-front problem with today’s SUVs; certain areas are marked for larger vehicles. Allen considers the experience to be akin to urban camping, and while the drive-in will forever be a cheap hotel room for some demographics, being able to have your little ones already in their PJs until they crash with their bellies full of popcorn and Twizzlers, leaving parents to watch the grown-up movie that usually follows the kiddie one, is an easy way to spend a Saturday night as a family.
The Premier website shows elaborate neon signs and video of a long line of urban campers making their way to screenings of Hollywood’s latest offerings. It’s high-tech and a far cry from the clunky speakers we once hung on our windows as we slowly drained Dad’s battery drinking smuggled beer.
When I was young, we’d stuff the trunk with kids, believing we were doing an end-run. Premier offers Carload Thursday – eighteen bucks a car, regardless of how many are mashed in there. They have cheap Tuesdays at $6 a head (regular price is $12), and kids are just a couple of dollars each. In peak weather, the screens are sold out, with more than 1,000 cars at the site in Oakville on a summer weekend.
Daniel Cojocaru drove himself and two friends in his 1969 Plymouth Fury to an opening night show of ‘Shrek’ and ‘Evolution’ at the Docks Drive-In in Toronto.
If I really want a taste of my youth, however, perhaps I’d best be heading to Saskatchewan. The Jubliee Drive-In at Manitou Beach was started by a group of businessmen in 1955. Over time, it came to belong to just one family, the Crawfords.
The area of Manitou Beach and nearby Watrous in Saskatchewan are noted tourist areas, featuring the second saltiest body of water in the world at the centre of their spa and resort. While the permanent population of Manitou Beach hovers around 250 and nearby Watrous is nearing 2,000, the Jubilee draws about 85 per cent of its patrons from visitors to the area.
Tara Hayden worked for the Crawford family for nearly two decades before taking over the operation of the site four years ago. The theatre changed hands after the Crawfords retired, and four years later the village of Manitou Beach bought the property.
“The community was in danger of losing the drive-in at the time. The changeover to digital threatened to close it,” she explains. In true prairie spirit, the surrounding areas held fundraisers to buy some used equipment to keep the place going. Hayden says it’s common in Saskatchewan, which still has four drive-ins.
Right now, Hayden, the local girl who now works full time in car sales, keeps a movie schedule in an attempt to at least break even. Last year the Jubilee was open for six months; this year, after June weekends and adding Thursdays in July, Hayden plans on running every day for the final two weeks of August and closing up shop on Labour Day. She says next year is up in the air.
“It’s funny,” she continues. “When my son was 15, he was running the 35-millimetre projector. The family who runs the Prairie Dog Drive-in in Carlyle (nearly four hours away) was visiting and it turned out their 15 year-old daughter was running their 35-millimetre projector. These two kids deep in conversation over equipment that was decades old. It would be such a shame to lose these places. They really are important parts of their communities.”
She says now their visitors are coming back with not just their kids, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Everything old can be new again, especially if a community values it.