A drive-in theater or drive-in cinema is a form of cinema structure consisting of a large outdoor movie screen, a projection booth, a concession stand and a large parking area for automobiles. Within this enclosed area, customers can view movies from the privacy and comfort of their cars. Some drive-ins have small playgrounds for children and a few picnic tables or benches.
The screen can be as simple as a wall that is painted white, or it can be a steel truss structure with a complex finish. Originally, the movie's sound was provided by speakers on the screen and later by individual speakers hung from the window of each car, which were attached by wire. These systems were superseded by the more economical and easier to maintain method of broadcasting the soundtrack at a low output power on AM or FM radio to be picked up by a car radio. This also allows the soundtrack to be picked up in stereo by the audience on an in-car stereo system which is typically higher quality and fidelity than the simple speakers used in the old systems.
A partial drive-in theater – Theatre de Guadalupe – was opened in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 23, 1915:
Seven hundred people may be comfortably seated in the auditorium. Automobile entrances and places for 40 or more cars within the theater grounds and in-line position to see the pictures and witness all performances on the stage is a feature of the place that will please car owners.
In 1921, a drive-in was opened by Claude V. Caver in Comanche, Texas. Caver obtained a permit from the city to project films downtown. With cars parked bumper-to-bumper, patrons witnessed the screening of silent films from their vehicles. In the 1920s, "outdoor movies" became a popular summer entertainment, but relatively few "drive-in" experiments were made due to logistical difficulties.
The drive-in theater was patented in Camden, New Jersey by chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., whose family owned and operated the R.M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden. In 1932, Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests in his driveway at 212 Thomas Avenue in Riverton. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing different sound levels with his car windows down and up. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway enabled him to determine the size and spacing of ramps so all automobiles could have a clear view of the screen. Hollingshead applied for a patent of his invention on August 6, 1932, and he was given U.S. Patent 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933.
Hollingshead's drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933, on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken Township, a short distance from Cooper River Park. Rosemont Avenue now runs through where the theater was. It offered 400 slots and a 40 by 50 ft (12 by 15 m) screen. He advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are." The first film shown was the Adolphe Menjou film Wife Beware. Failing to make a profit, Hollingshead sold the theater after three years to a Union, New Jersey theater owner who moved the infrastructure to that city, but the concept caught on nationwide.
The April 15, 1934, opening of Shankweiler's Auto Park in Orefield, Pennsylvania, was followed by Galveston's Drive-In Short Reel Theater (July 5, 1934), the Pico Drive-In Theater at Pico and Westwood boulevards in Los Angeles (September 9, 1934) and the Weymouth Drive-In Theatre in Weymouth, Massachusetts (May 6, 1936). In 1937, three more opened in Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with another 12 during 1938 and 1939 in California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Texas and Virginia.
Early drive-in theaters had to deal with sound issues. The original Hollingshead drive-in had speakers installed on the tower itself which caused a sound delay affecting patrons at the rear of the drive-in's field. In 1935, the Pico Drive-in Theater attempted to solve this problem by having a row of speakers in front of the cars. In 1941, RCA introduced in-car speakers with individual volume controls which solved the noise pollution issue and provided satisfactory sound to drive-in patrons. Just before World War II, 9 of the 15 drive-in movie theaters open in the United States were operated by Philip Smith, who promoted a family-friendly environment by allowing children to enter free and built playgrounds.
The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spread across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that older adults with children could take care of their infant while watching a movie, while youth found drive-ins ideal for a first date. Revenue is more limited than regular theaters since showings can only begin at twilight. There were abortive attempts to create suitable conditions for daylight viewing such as large tent structures, but nothing viable was developed.
During the 1950s, the greater privacy afforded to patrons gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labeled "passion pits" in the media. Beginning in the 1970s, many drive-ins changed from family fare to exploitation films, as a way to offset declining patronage and revenue. Also, during the 1970s, some drive-ins began to show pornographic movies in less family-centered time slots to bring in extra income. This allowed censored materials to be viewed by a wide audience, some for whom viewing was still illegal in many states, and it was reliant upon the whims of local ordinances controlling such material. It also required a relatively remote location distant from populated areas such as towns and cities.
During their height, some drive-ins used attention-grabbing gimmicks to boost attendance. They ranged from drawings for prizes and free admission, small airplane runways, unusual attractions such as a small petting zoo or cage of monkeys, personal appearances by actors to open their movies, or musical groups to play before the show. Some drive-ins held Sunday religious services, or charged a flat price per car on slow nights like Wednesdays or Sundays. On "buck" nights during the 1950s and 1960s, the admission price was one dollar per car.
One of the largest drive-in theaters was the Johnny All-Weather Drive-In in Copiague, New York. Covering over 29 acres, it could park 2,500 vehicles. It had a full-service restaurant with seating on the roof, and a trolley system to take children and adults to a playground and a large indoor theater for bad weather or for those who wanted to watch in air-conditioned comfort.
The shift in content of drive-ins was less of an issue than competition from home entertainment, from color television to VCRs and video rentals. As well, the 1970s energy crisis led to a sharp decline of attendance, combined with the widespread adoption of daylight saving time (which made the shows start an hour later). These changes made it harder for drive-ins to operate successfully. Real estate interest rate hikes in the eighties made the large land tracts increasingly expensive, and thus far too valuable for businesses such as drive-ins, which were often open only in the summer months. Drive-ins were also subject to the whim of nature as inclement weather often caused poor attendance or cancellations. Fewer than two hundred drive-ins were in operation in the U.S. and Canada by the late eighties. Since the nineties they have lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience, with many drive-ins continuing to successfully operate in some areas, mostly on the West Coast. By 2013, drive-ins comprised only 1.5 percent of movie screens in the United States, with 389 theaters in operation. At the industry's height, about 25 percent of the nation's movie screens were found at a drive-in.
Many drive-in movie sites remain, but re-purposed as storage or flea market sites, often after residential housing or other higher value uses came to the lightly populated or unpopulated areas where the drive-ins were located. The largest drive-in theater in the world, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, doubles as the world's largest daily flea market. Former drive-in properties in Michigan have become industrial parks, shopping centers, indoor theaters, and even churches (as with the Former Woodland Drive-In in Grand Rapids, MI). In Philadelphia, the South City Drive In became the location of the original Spectrum in the late 1960s, with a small portion of its old property line extending into what would become the (now demolished) Veterans Stadium complex. (Today that small portion, combined with the original Spectrum location, is part of Xfinity Live! Philadelphia.) Another example of a drive in-turned-flea market is Spotlight 88 in North Sewickley Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which ended business as a drive-in after an F3 tornado destroyed much of the property on May 31, 1985. As a joke after the tornado hit, the owners put up in the "now-showing" sign Gone with the Wind. It was most likely copied from a Taylor, Michigan Drive in called Ecorse Drive-In. On July 16, 1980, a freak derecho storm with 150 mph straight line winds  swept the Drive-In away leaving only the "now-showing" sign with the letters "Now Playing Gone with the Wind". They rebuilt the screen, but it never recovered; by 1989, it was sold and now is a Kroger grocery store.
The resurgence of the industry of the late 1990s led to the inception of the "do-it-yourself" drive-in beginning in 2001, which utilized contemporary tools such as LCD projectors and micro-radio transmitters. The first was the Liberation Drive-In in Oakland, California, which sought to reclaim under-utilized urban spaces such as vacant parking lots in the downtown area. The following years have seen the rise of the "guerrilla drive-in" movement, in which groups of dedicated individuals orchestrate similar outdoor film and video screenings. Showings are often organized online, and participants meet at specified locations to watch films projected on bridge pillars or warehouses. The content featured at these screenings has frequently been independent or experimental films, cult movies, or otherwise alternative programming. The best known "guerrilla" drive-ins include the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California, North Bay Mobile Drive-In in Novato, California, MobMov in San Francisco, California and Hollywood, and most recently Guerilla Drive-In Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia.
Faced with the closure of Hull's Drive In in Lexington, Virginia, in 1999, the non-profit group Hull's Angels formed to raise funds, buy the property and operate the theater as a non-profit venture specializing in family-friendly films. Hull's continues to be the nation's only non-profit drive-in.
As of March 2014, a figure of 348 drive-ins has been published for the United States. In fall 2014, the burger chain Johnny Rockets announced that it would team up with USA Drive-Ins to open 200 drive-ins by 2018 serving Johnny Rocket's food at the concession stands.
The ongoing conversion of the film distribution network to be exclusively digital distribution is also putting additional pressure on drive-in theaters. Most small drive-ins lack the finances (beginning at $70,000 per screen) needed to convert to digital projection. The lack of multiple screens with many daily showings means the low volume of ticket sales will make it hard for many drive-ins to justify the cost of installing digital projection.
Conversion of the projection booth to digital is more complex for drive-in theaters. The projector needs a more powerful bulb due to an increased screen size and light pollution. In addition, digital projection equipment may require an Internet connection, and the booth must be retrofitted with special glass, more vents and stronger air conditioning as well as heat in northern climates.
The nation's first drive-in theater was built by the Hollingshead family along the tawdry Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken, N.J., in 1933.