The Credits Roll On Another Season At The Drive-In
At their peak in the late 1950s there were almost 5000 drive-in theaters in the U.S. Now that number is now down to almost 450, and shrinking. More and more theaters are closing every year due to a variety of economic challenges.
Just on the west side of Fort Collins, a stone’s throw from Colorado State University’s Hughes Stadium you’ll find one of the two remaining Front Range drive-ins, the Holiday Twin. The theater was built in the late 1960s, about 1968 or 1969. Stephanie and Wes Webb have owned it for the last 35 years.
"Through the late 80s and into the 90s a lot of drive-ins started to die out. And it was not because they weren't busy,” said Stephanie. “For the most part it was because progress was coming to those large tracts of land where drive-ins were located. It's evident here at the Holiday Twin.”
Back in 1979 when Stephanie’s husband bought the theater, there wasn’t much around it on South Overland Trail. As her husband quipped, “You could shoot a deer rifle in any direction and not hit a thing.” Cities are hungry for growth and undeveloped land in turn feeds that, making way for sub-divisions, retail and the like.
The Holiday Twin is now surrounded on three sides by houses.
“So when you’re sitting on a seasonal piece of property that only generates income about 6 months out of the year and a developer comes up to you and is offering you millions of dollars,” Stephanie says, “and you might make $40,000 a year, that's a big pay day and especially when it's a family owned situation like ours is."
"In the last 10 years the biggest change that we've seen that's hitting drive-ins now is this digital transformation and you're really forced to do it."
For drive-in movie fans it's so much more than just watching a film. It's a place to hang out with your kids, to tailgate before the first feature, or to have your first date. For Dianne Wells and her sister it's a chance to share childhood memories with their children.
“We had 7 brothers and sisters and so there were 8 of us our parents brought,” said Wells. “And so yes, running around...they always had the toys up front and you know just the outside and yes falling asleep before the second movie started which was one you couldn't see anyway."
Like many small independent movie theaters around the country the cost of converting to a digital format is an expensive prospect and it's forcing many theaters to close.
"In the last 10 years the biggest change that we've seen that's hitting drive-ins now is this digital transformation and you're really forced to do it,” said Stephanie Webb. “In the next three years, if you don't do make the switch from film projecting into the digital world you won't be able to get product anymore."
New digital projectors cost $75,000 each and the Holiday Twin has two screens. That's not the only cost.
"And the building because it was built in the 60s had to be refurbished because they are very sensitive to dust and drive-ins are of course all dust,” laments Webb. “They're very sensitive to grease. They have to have certain filtration systems; they have to have their own cooling systems. We had to have special windows installed. So all in all our bill was $300,000."
Going to a drive-in movie is the ultimate American summer experience, and a fleeting one. The theaters may not be around for many more years. Colorado is home to 6 in all, just two of them on the Front Range.
The first weekend of September is the last weekend of the season for the Holiday Twin drive-in. They hope to re-open for the 2014 season as early as March.