The drive-in theater has been a fixture of American culture since The '30s. Every spring and summer night (and all year round in warmer climates), millions of viewers pay the admission fee for themselves and their friends (at least the ones who aren't hiding in the trunk), get some snacks at the concession stand, and watch two (or more) movies projected on an outdoor screen from the privacy and comfort of their cars. Although drive-ins are most popular in the United States, they exist around the world. The drive-in is an enduring symbol of Americana whose continued existence defies some heavy odds.
The Beginning: The drive-in theater was created in 1933 by chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., who opened the first one in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. It was popular enough that similar theaters began to open around the country. The drive-in became known as a place where a family could enjoy watching movies from the privacy of their car.
The Rise: Drive-ins really took off after World War II; by their peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins all across America. While they continued to show mainstream Hollywood fare for families, they also became popular with teenagers, who would come to see the latest B Movies (which usually dealt with Science Fiction monsters, juvenile delinquents, and early rock & roll). Of course, teens also took advantage of the privacy factor, which made drive-ins notorious as "passion pits" (equivalent to "Netflix and chill" in The New '10s). In the popular imagination, drive-ins are still associated with these tropes derived from the 1950s. However, this heyday couldn't last...
The Fall: Drive-ins gradually declined for a number of reasons. The real estate they used became too valuable to "waste" on a business which could operate for only a few hours a day, a few months a year, and even then was subject to bad weather. Meanwhile, audiences began turning to cable TV and home video for their movie fix, or hitting up the then-new concept of the multiplex theater. Some drive-ins responded by changing their emphasis from family fare to the increasingly violent and sexually explicit exploitation and horror films that were, ironically, the successors to the 1950s B Movies.
A few drive-ins even showed outright pornography. This was often the only choice some of these theatres had to be able to survive, as it was often difficult to get regular "first run" movies from the major studios, often requiring them to wait 4-5 months after a film's initial release. However, this practice of showing soft-core and even hard-core porn where it is publicly visible angered people who lived in the residences near the theatre property, who might not want to have an X-Rated film showing where they - or their kids - could see explicit sex acts being performed (on a 50-foot high screen no less!) A number of drive-in operators were put on trial over the content of the films they showed, and some communities tried to ban showing porn flicks at drive-ins. Until one owner fought back. In the case of Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, the United States Supreme Court struck down an ordinance that tried to ban such films at drive-ins, finding the ban violates the first Amendment as excessively broad.
Another common tactic was for drive-ins to add multiple screens. Some rented their land during the day to other businesses, such as flea markets—or managed such businesses themselves. Especially in urban areas, the vast expanses of land necessary for a drive-in became too expensive to maintain, and the land was sold for redevelopment because it just wasn't financially feasible to keep it open. Therefore, many drive-ins were forced to close between The '70s and the Turn of the Millennium. In many cases, the land was even turned over to build a shiny new multiplex theater. It seemed that the drive-in was headed for extinction—or was it?
The Resurgence: Beginning in The '90s, and continuing thru the Turn of the Millennium and still going strong in The New '10s, drive-ins have enjoyed a revival; a few new theaters have even opened in the last few years. Some of this is due to Baby Boomer nostalgia, although many current drive-in visitors are too young to remember the medium's heyday. Also, a "guerrilla drive-in" movement has developed to show films in parks, parking lots and other open urban spaces. Although it's unlikely that drive-ins will ever again be as numerous as they were during The '50s, it seems that they're here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future.
During intermissions, drive-ins traditionally show advertisements for the snack bar, as well as public service announcements, ads for local merchants, safety messages and reminders of when the next movie is going to start ("10 minutes to showtime!"). These peppy, often animated ads have a following of their own; many are available on DVD compilations and in the Internet Archive's Moving Image Archive.
Many drive-ins have playgrounds for child patrons to use before the show. Some also have miniature golf courses. The substantial pre-paved space also allows the drive-in lot itself to temporarily double as the local flea market during the day, providing additional revenue.
They've also changed as technology improved. Originally, Drive-ins had physical speakers, attached by wire to a post, which you removed from the post, rolled down your window, placed the speaker inside, then rolled up the window. This often caused people to forget they had the speaker attached, causing them to drive off, usually ripping the speaker off the post and possibly breaking the window.note (Some very small ones just had a single, large speaker.) Today, drive ins have low-power broadcast transmitters, that send the audio to your car radio. Some drive-ins even have digital sound (usually the DTS format, since they are the only company that does installations for digital sound in drive-ins). This also means, if the car has good stereo, that the sound can be as good as that in a high-quality walk-in theater. Some drive-ins run AM as well as FM signals for the few people who don't have FM radio. More recently, some locations have begun using apps to stream audio over wi-fi to viewers' smartphones.
Movie Theater Episode is a related trope.
- The commercial for Soul Calibur that was part of the Sega Dreamcast's "It's Thinking" ad campaign depicted video game characters at a drive-in, watching trailers for upcoming games. There was also a fan-made commercial for the cancelled Dreamcast port of Half-Life that was merely this same commercial but with Half-Life gameplay and box art sloppily pasted in. View the original ad here, and the Half-Life version here.
- Tales Of The Starlight Drive In, an award-winning graphic novel written by Michael Sangiacomo, is an anthology of stories set at a single drive-in over 53 years.
- An issue of Hsu and Chan had the characters head off to a drive-in and getting caught up in a money making scheme of an old movie anniversary.
- In the first issue of the original The Transformers comic, the Autobots go to a drive-in theater during their first night on Earth, thinking that cars and trucks are sentient and that the drive-in is a church of some sort. It takes them a while to realize it's the little fleshy things inside the cars that are the ones watching the movie.
- Night of the Living Dead: Hunger has zombies attacking unsuspecting moviegoers at a rundown drive-in theater.
- Targets ends with a sniper taking potshots at patrons at a drive-in theater. He is eventually faced down by Boris Karloff's character.
- Spies Like Us: A Star Wars-style anti-missile system is hidden underneath an old run-down drive-in theater.
- Our Man Flint: One of the fantasy make-out areas inside the GALAXY base is designed to look like a drive-in theater.
- A tornado attacks one during Twister, complete with Shout-Out to The Shining, matching the "Here's Johnny!" scene to the tornado crashing into said theater.
- Grease had a couple of scenes at one, including the musical number "Sandy".
- There's an especially bad slasher film called Drive-In Massacre.
- There's another DTV slasher film simply called Drive-In, and it's surprisingly decent.
- Explorers has a memorable scene where the home-built spaceship flies slowly across the screen of a drive-in movie theater in the middle of a campy 1950's sci-fi schlockfest. A patron in one of the cars complains that the special effects look fake, thinking it's part of the movie, and claims to be able to see the string. Then the ship turns and zooms right over his head, and he spills his popcorn in shock.
- In Back to the Future Part III, Doc Brown has Marty run the DeLorean Time Machine through the grounds of a drive-in to get it up to 88 MPH in order to go back in time, because in the 1880s that area was just sagebrush and empty grassland; when Marty rematerializes he won't end up crashing into a tree or a mountain.
- In The Monster Squad, Sean and his dad sit on their roof with a radio and binoculars so they can watch movies showing at a nearby drive-in without having to pay for tickets.
- In Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Dotty insists early in the movie that Pee-wee take her to the drive-in on a date. It's not until the end that he actually does it, and also runs into almost every other character he's met so far, all present in different vehicles and eating different classic movie snacks..
- One of the scenes in Air Buddies has the puppies go to a drive-in theatre and interrupt the showing of 101 Dalmatians. A biker gang is there watching the movie, and when the puppies pass by them... they literally Pet the Dog.
- Northville Cemetery Massacre includes a scene where a bunch of motorcycles pull up to a drive-in theater (specifically, the now-abandoned Jolly Roger Drive-In in the Detroit suburb of Taylor).
- In Red Dawn (1984), the Dirty Communists turn this icon of American culture into a prison/reeducation camp.
- In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, some of the participants in a just completed vault robbery hide in the (huge) trunk of a 1950s Chevy, which goes over to the nearby drive-in as a vehicle with a couple of regular customers. Unfortunately, the clothes of the men hiding are exposed hanging out of the trunk, which causes the manager to call the police.
- Wikipedia describes the Australian feature Dead End Drive-In as "a 1986 science-fiction Ozploitation Film about a teenage couple who become trapped in a drive-in theater which is really a concentration camp for societal rejects who are fed a steady diet of junk food, rock and pop music, and movies."
- The Sugarland Express: The fugitive couple watch a Road Runner cartoon on the drive-in screen across from their motel room.
- Stanley Kubrick's Lolita has Humbert sitting between Lolita and Mrs. Hayes at a drive-in showing the Hammer Film The Curse of Frankenstein. At a shocking moment hands grab other hands, with awkward consequences.
- The original That Darn Cat! features a Chase Scene at a drive-in.
- Blood Rage begins at a drive-in, where the killer (then a young boy) claims his first victim by hacking up a random patron up with an axe that was lying around... for some reason.
- The killer gets chased to a drive-in by angry bikers in New Year's Evil. He escapes by knifing one of them and hijacking a car.
- In One Crazy Summer, Hoops and Cookie go to a drive-in that apparently serves popcorn in bags large enough to fill up a fourth of a car (which Cookie easily finishes long before the movie ends). Later several characters smuggle in a projector and use it to advertise Cassandra's music in the corner of the screen during a movie.
- In the "Julie" segment of the Made-for-TV Anthology Film Trilogy of Terror, a student who has an unhealthy obsession with his teacher takes her on a date to a drive-in, knocks her out with a spiked drink, then takes compromising photos of her while she's unconscious.
- In Heat, Neil McCauley arranges to meet with Roger Van Zant's drop man in an abandoned drive-in. However, an assassin is hiding in the drop man's pickup truck. Chris Shiherlis covers Neil from the roof of the projection building. The two of them take down the assassin (which Neil has difficulty hitting because he's driving over the humps used to angle the cars to the screen). The pickup truck driver tries to flee, but just as he is about to exit, Michael Cheritto shoots him with a shotgun.
- Midnight Cowboy opens with a shot of the Big Tex Drive-In. It's daytime, so the the place is empty save for a boy riding a plastic horse in the playground area underneath the screen.
- White Heat has a scene where Cody Jarrett and his gang elude the police by driving into one of these.
- In Night of the Lepus, a police officer interrupts the movie at a drive-in to announce: "There is a herd of giant killer bunnies coming this way, and we need your help!" Amazingly, the audience actually takes him seriously.
- In D.C. Cab, kidnapped Albert gets a message to the other cabbies about where he's being held prisoner: a farmhouse where he can hear airplanes and see a windmill and Bruce Lee. After some false leads, they find him near a drive-in theater that's playing Bruce Lee movies, its big screen being visible from Albert's position.
- Bill Bryson was thrilled to discover a drive-in theater still operating in 1990s New Hampshire and brought his family out to experience it. Not only was the endeavour a disaster, but Bryson reasoned that this had actually always been the case.
- The Cider House Rules contains a fictional example of a drive-in theater being used as a Make-Out Point.
- The second Snarkout Boys'' novel by Daniel Pinkwater deals with the secret history of the drive-in as a major plot point. The book claims that the original "drive-in" was a stage show in Romania in the 1800s, which the peasants hated so much that they burned it down and drove the purveyor out of the country. The climax of the book is at the world's largest drive-in theater, founded by a descendant of the original inventor. A Romanian pyromaniac shows up and sets the entire lot on fire.
- According to Word of God, going to drive-in theaters is how Harry Dresden manages to make tons of pop culture references despite being a Walking Techbane.
- A character is forced to watch the deaths of his friends in a decayed drive-in in Freddy Krueger's Seven Sweetest Dreams story "Asleep at the Wheel".
- Ian Fleming's Diamonds Are Forever has a scene in Las Vegas where James Bond is in a cab being pursued by a pair of gunmen, and the driver attempts (unsuccessfully) to shake them by going to a drive-in where a movie is playing.
- Joe Lansdale's "The Drive-In" takes place in one of these theaters.
- One of these appeared in an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete where older Pete and Ellen go on a date.
- The bad guys on Chuck had their base in an old drive-in.
- In an early episode of That '70s Show Eric, Donna, Kelso and Jackie go to the local drive-in to watch The Omen (1976) — well, actually to make out.
- In Green Acres, Oliver and Lisa go to a drive-in, while in the pick-up truck next to them, a couple are busy making out with extreme passion. Oliver tries to pull the speaker off of the post, but it's too short, it flies back, smashing the driver's side window of that same vehicle. The couple is so busy with heavy necking that they never even notice.
- Angel takes Connor to a drive-in in an attempt at father-son bonding.
- One of the last episodes of Cold Case began with a guy getting sniped in a drive-in.
- The Mission: Impossible episode "The Psychic" begins with Briggs receiving his assignment at a drive-in.
- The Brady Bunch had two episodes where Greg took his date to a drive-in with hilarious results. In one, he was forced to take Bobby along with him after losing a bet. In the other, Bobby and Peter accidentally left their pet frogs in the car.
- The Facts of Life had an episode that took place at the closing night of a drive-in.
- On an episode of Cheers, Cliff, Norm, Frasier and Woody go to a Godzilla marathon at a drive-in.
- An episode of Family Matters took place at a drive-in and focused on the dates of Laura, Steve, and Waldo. The latter of which didn't even come in a car, rather Maxine and he just walk in with folding chairs and coolers.
- In "Last Whiff of Summer", the two-part fourth-season premiere of The Middle, the Hecks go to a drive-in.
- In one episode of Call of the Wildman, a Rascally Raccoon has taken up residence in the local drive-in's snack bar and is helping itself to popcorn and chips. Turtleman chases it into the projection booth and catches it, then he and Neal watch the movie being shown that night from the Turtlemobile.
- In the My Mother the Car episode "And Leave the Drive-In to Us", Dave and his family brave a cold day in order to take Mother to a drive-in, where a movie co-starring Mother's favorite actor Sonny Tufts is playing. When the picture is finally over, there are two cars left in the lot, and the other car is driven by Sonny Tufts himself.
- In Riverdale, Jughead protests the upcoming closing of the town's drive-in as it's an important piece of the town's history. The end of the episode reveals it's actually because he's homeless after a falling-out with his father and has been squatting there.
- "Drive-In" by The Beach Boys.
- "There's an Elvis movie on the marquee sign" is the opening line to Hal Ketchum's "Small Town Saturday Night".
- "Moonlight Drive-In" by Turner Nichols recalls a former lover and how they would make out at the drive-in.
- In "Everything's Changed" by Lonestar, the narrator laments all of the things that have changed in his hometown — but the one thing that stays the same is how much he still loves her. One of the things that's changed is "That old drive-in is a new Walmart".
- Post-Punk band At the Drive-In, who take their name from a Poison lyric.
- The first verse of the Sylvers' hit "Boogie Fever":
I took my baby to the drive-in show
She turned the speaker down
and then she turned on the radio
I watched a silent movie, diggin' funky sound
- In 1958, Gary Shelton (later known as Teen Idol Troy Shondell) released a single called "Kissin' at the Drive-In".
- "Drive-In Saturday" by David Bowie.
- In "Night Moves", Bob Seger remembers a time when he and his girlfriend were "Tryin' to make some front page drive-in news".
- When Rascal Flatts covered "Life Is A Highway" for Cars, the music video took place at a drive-in with the movie playing on the screen and real-life counterparts to the main characters in the lot.
- Bob Seger's "Night Moves", which also features Matt LeBlanc as one of the moviegoers. The song was recorded in 1976, but the video was filmed in 1994 to help promote his Greatest Hits CD.
- The Hooters' "And We Danced" has the band performing at a drive-in theater.
- Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" video features him painting the screen at a drive-in theater during the second verse. He falls asleep on the job and is still up there when the movie starts.
- The video for Jon Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" from the Young Guns II soundtrack has him performing the song at a decrepit drive-in atop a cliff in the American southwest. Scenes from the movie play on the screen (until the screen catches fire, reflecting a blaze in the film scenes being shown).
- The theatrical show Grease was based on had a song "Alone at a Drive-In" that directly reference a lot of the subtropes, including the (usually extremely cheesy) intermission advertisements and the fact that a lot of teenagers weren't really there to watch the movie, If You Know What I Mean. The song didn't make it to the film version, though you can hear a snippet of the music sans lyrics.
- At Disney's Hollywood Studios, there's a restaurant called Sci-Fi Drive-In, which features car-themed tables that face a Drive-In screen that plays trailers of old science fiction films.
- The setting of the main show of the former Twister...Ride it Out attraction was a Drive-In Theater which is destroyed by a tornado in a recreation of the movie scene.
- Vigilante 8: 2nd Offense had a level set in a desert which featured one of these; driving through the screen would get you a power-up and (depending on the character) is necessary to complete the level.
- Fallout 3 has a drive-in theater. One of the cars has two skeletons embracing on the hood.
- There are a few more Drive-Ins dotted about the Mojave Wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas.
- One of the settlements the player can establish in Fallout 4 is a drive-in.
- One of the fields in Backyard Baseball is Starlite Orchards Drive-In.
- One of the stages in the first Destroy All Humans! has a drive-in theater. It eve1n played a full-length movie during one mission.
- In It Came From The Desert, one of the places that could be attacked by the giant ants was the local drive-in.
- An abandoned drive-in is present in the Stilwater of Saints Row 2, just north of Stilwater University, and used as part of one of the Hitman Activities. Complete with boarded up building, old speakers on poles, rusted up cars, and homeless bums!
- An intact drive-in also appears in virtual Steelport during a mission near the beginning and end of the fourth game. Unfortunately, once these missions in 50s Steelport are over the player can't return there and none of the objectives or side content use it for anything, its just there for effect.
- The DLC "How The Saints Save Christmas" however, revisits the town and actually made the drive-in into a mission objective. Namely, to play Christmas movies to "restore the Holiday spirit".
- The Gat Out Of Hell expansion also has the remains of a drive-in theater in hell's entertainment district.
- The multiplayer map "Drive-In" from Call of Duty: Black Ops is set in an abandoned drive-in. Besides having an arcade with Call of Duty: World at War games, the old movie screen has a chunk torn out of it to make an effective sniping post.
- One of the levels in Twisted Metal: Black is a drive-in theatre. A well placed missile can destroy the screen.
- One of the 3x3-tile commercial buildings in SimCity 2000 is a drive-in theater, and one of the low-value commercial buildings in SimCity 3000 is a flea market that looks like a run-down drive-in theater.
- The third location Alan visits in American Nightmare is an old drive-in theater out in the Arizona desert. He uses the film projector there to finally destroy Mr. Scratch.
- The syndicated opening and closing credits of The Flintstones feature the "modern stone age family" visiting a drive-in theater.
- A drive-in also appears in Scooby-Doo! and the Reluctant Werewolf.
- The Simpsons
- In an episode, Marge and Homer double-date with Grandpa and his girlfriend, Zelda, to a drive-in to see Dude, Where's My Virginity?. Grandpa and Zelda start making out in the front seat.
- Another episode has actor Troy McClure trying to resurrect his fading career by marrying Marge's sister Selma; he proposes to her at a drive-in where they're watching one of his old movies, The Muppets Go Medieval.
- In another episode, Apu reveals that he sometimes gets up on the roof of the Kwik-E-Mart so he can watch movies at the drive in across the street for free.
- In yet another, Homer recalls having fun at the local drive-in as a lad. Flashback to the car shaking and squeaking rhythmically. Cut to interior to see...Homer surrounded by his favorite treats, reaching back and forth to grab food and shove it in his mouth—that's what causes the shaking.
- The episode, "Little Big Girl", has Bart and Darcy starting off their relationship with a Big Damn Kiss at a drive-in theater while the film's gory plot twist unfolds in the background, the story's teenage protagonist is violently chainsawed by his psychologist.
- In another, several Springfield Elementary students sneak into one after a sunset curfew is placed on all children in Springfield, and see a 1950s horror film entitled The Bloodening, where a group of children are able to read the minds of adults. During the film, the police catch them and force them to clean a giant animatronic billboard set up earlier in the episode, giving them a motivation for revenge, which results in the creation of a radio program titled We Know All Your Secrets, where they reveal secrets of Springfield's adults in a style similar to the film.
- At the epilogue of another one, Homer and Marge entered one with the kids inside the trunk. To Homer's dismay, Marge did pay for their tickets.
- In one episode the reason Cletus is so happy to get his driver's license back is because it means he can drive his own vehicle there so he no longer has to sit in the dirt at the drive-in.
- The Jersey Drive-In is the battleground for the penultimate episode of Megas XLR in "Universal Remote". It's mentioned that Coop destroyed all the other drive-ins in Jersey. They also sneak Goat in the trunk of Megas because sneaking people into the drive-through is a "time-honored tradition".
- The Magic School Bus episode "Spins a Web" shows the students seen into a Movie Within a Show on a drive-in screen in which they soon find themselves. As with most shows to feature a drive-in that isn't a period piece, a B-Movie is being shown.
- The Animaniacs episode "Drive Insane" features the Warners crashing Dr. Scratchansniff's date at a drive-in theater. There's a joke featuring them bouncing around in the car that will go over the heads of kids but will mean plenty to adults.
- The My Life as a Teenage Robot episode "Future Scope" features a drive-in movie theater, one of many Retro Universe aspects of the series.
- There was a one-hour Rugrats special, "Runaway Reptar", that was partly set at a drive-in theater.
- The Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers episode "Good Times, Bat Times" begins at a drive-in theater.
- Part of the Pac-Man episode "Pacula" took place at a drive-in theater.
- The Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie has a parody of snack bar advertisements in which friendly, anthropomorphic snack food mascots are replaced by the metal band Mastodon.
- The 2 Stupid Dogs episode "At the Drive-In". Watching the movie, Little Dog comments on how bad the movie is and wonders why people would go there. Cue the bouncing and rocking cars. When they first tried to get in, Little Dog tried to buy one ticket but the woman at the booth noticed they were in two. Little Dog said Big Dog was his dog and she told him pets weren't welcome. Little Dog then drove away, hid Big Dog inside the trunk, returned and bought a ticket. Big Dog entered for free. Little Dog also wanted to enter for free so they exited and Big Dog drove back in, buying a ticket. Little Dog was happy he entered for free.
- On Beavis And Butthead, the two go to a drive-in, but since they naturally don't have a car, they wander around. They take a picture of a hideous she-beast having sex in her van, and spend the rest of the episode fleeing her.
- Another B&B example: In the revival episode "Tech Support", the boys go to the site of an shuttered drive-in ("Abandoned drive-ins kick ass!"), only to find an office building in its place.
- The credits of Johnny Bravo were "projected" onto a drive-in screen.
- Casper's Haunted Christmas begins with the Ghostly Trio wreaking havoc at a drive-in.
- Synergy, the supercomputer of Jerrica "Jem" Benton and her family, was found at the Starlight Drive-In.
- In the Ruby-Spears Superman episode "Bonechill", the titular villain makes the monsters from a B-Movie shown at a drive-in come to life.
- Finn and Marceline crash one of these in at end of the the Adventure Time episode "Go With Me".
- One episode of American Dad! has Roger gaining some old 80's movies and a pack of cars mistakenly sent to the Smith house. Steve, in another attempt to get a girl, has Roger play the movies on the side of the neighboring house while Steve, his friends, and the current girl of his attention and her friends watch from the cars as a makeshift drive in.
- Was the focus of an episode of The Replacements when Riley starts working there but finds the manager too strict and has him replaced with a film director who promptly gets the place closed down due to horrible management.
- In Transformers Prime, Knockout has admitted he's watched human horror films at drive-ins.
- Phineas and Ferb
- Doofenshmirtz used to watch drive-in movies from one of his windows (despite being unable to hear the stories) until a new building was erected between the drive-in theater and the headquarters of Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated. He could have solved the trouble by moving his chair and the lamp to another window but he instead tried to move the building away.
- Many years before the show, Doofenshmirtz dated Linda Flynn, taking her to a drive-in. He smuggled her in in the trunk of his car to save on the ticket price.