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In the Movies: Drive-In Movie Theaters

Image Credit: Flickr user bound_4_freedom

I miss going to the drive-in, a movie experience unlike any other yet a quickly disappearing icon of early American car culture. The differences between going to a drive-in and a regular theater are numerous. I remember looking around at other screens when the movie I was watching grew slow, the obligatory repeat visits to the concession stand, even sneaking in via the trunk to save a few bucks.

When real estate became too valuable, these operations were forced out for development, and they just started vanishing. Even improving the audio experience -by replacing those awkward, often broken speakers with a signal beamed to the local AM/FM band- hasn't stopped the extinction. Even the film world is somewhat devoid of scenes involving one, but there are a handful that I can think of.


The Centinela Drive-In in Los Angeles was already closed up when Michael Mann filmed this scene for Heat there. The rows of small inclines, placed there so patrons could angle their cars up for premium viewing experience, make for some exciting driving as the characters react to a violent double-cross. The land is now a middle class development. More Heat filming locations at the link, and nine more examples after the jump.

Back to the Future III

In order to send Marty back this time, Doc sets up at a drive-in movie theater with a decidedly western theme. How appropriate. As the DeLorean accelerates to 88mph, it's headed right for a wall mural featuring a tribe of Old West Indians riding fiercely on horseback. After he jumps, Marty is instantly surrounded by the same thing, only it's real this time. How clever!

Blue Thunder

In this Roy Scheider/Malcolm McDowell helicopter thriller, there's one scene where Scheider's girlfriend has to retrieve evidence left in a dumpster at an L.A. drive-in (probably not the same one as Heat).

The Outsiders

Drive-in theaters weren't strictly a park-and-view experience. Many, especially in the 1960s, included playgrounds, patio dining, and a bandstand type seating area for pedestrian moviegoers - or greasers who sneak in under the fence, like in Francis Ford Coppola's classic.


In 1985, the Spotlight 88 drive-in theater in Pennsylvania was destroyed when an F3 tornado ripped through it. Afterwards, before it closed and became a flea market, the management changed the marquis sign to say "Now Playing: Gone with the Wind." In Jan de Bont's 1996 action movie, a twister of similar magnitude surprises a late night screening by chewing right through a screen showing The Shining. As a somewhat ham-handed tribute, de Bont has the screen and funnel meld together just as Jack Nicholson delivers his "Here's Johnny!" line.


In the Broadway production of Grease, the scene is the same, but the song Danny Zuko sings is actually called "Alone at the Drive In." It's a more bebop-ey, era-accurate song than "Sandy" could ever hope to be, but updating is nothing new. Also, nice inclusion of the animated snack bar ads. Everyone loves it when the hot dog jumps into the bun.


This gruesome gem was director Peter Bogdanovich's first movie, edited by Jaws' Verna Fields, and starred Boris Karloff in a kind of self-reflective role. He plays a former monster movie actor whose style is outdated; the people need scarier monsters now. Then some other character* decides to go on a shooting spree, at one point shooting people from behind the drive-in movie screen they're all staring at. Whoa, deep.

*Thanks for the correction, vertigo2712!

Jesus' Son

Another fairly unknown movie that gets a lot of repeat viewings at this household. Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Denis Leary, Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper. How's that for a "Who's in it?" Anyway, great cast and a life-affirming journey. In one crazy scene, after Crudup and Black have ingested some sort of hallucinogen, they come across an old drive-in, weeds growing tall and just the posts left where the speakers used to hang. Crudup's character thinks he's walking through a graveyard, then beholds his love up on the giant screen. And someone's feet is playing an organ. It's weird. Cool, but really strange.

Herbie Fully Loaded

Yeah, well that's what I've heard.


It was wise of John Carpenter to alter the scene in the book where Leigh almost chokes to death on a hamburger, and place it at a drive-in instead of outside of a fast food place. It just feels more natural to have a car like that 1958 Plymouth Fury at a drive-in theater. Right? And instead of a hitchhiker, we just get someone who was in the next car over to save her, at Arnie's expense.

So are there any I missed? Sound off in the comments.


Great article, but the description of Targets is inaccurate. Boris Karloff's retired movie star character is not the killer/villain of the film.

From (

Peter Bogdanovich's debut feature is a thinly disguised account of ex-marine Charles Whitman, who, after murdering his mother and his wife, armed himself with a number of rifles and handguns and on a sunny 1966 Texas morning, began a shooting spree that killed 14 people and wounded 32 people. Bogdanovich's version tells two stories concurrently, about an aging horror-film star who feels that his type of movie monster has become passé, and the other about a father-hating gun freak who goes on a rampage to get even with his dad by shooting at people from the top of a water tower and then from behind a drive-in movie screen.
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A 1980's movie called Explorers uses a drive-in during a scene where the 3 stars test fly the spaceship they make and accidentally fly it in front of the screen during a drive-in movie. It's a space movie and some know-it-all says "Ugh, that looks SO fake!" and then their ship turns and almost hits the guy, then crashes into the concession stand.
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Until we moved to the country, we lived in Melbourne near the Coburg drive-in. We went regularly and it was always full. We always took overseas visitors there, who thought it was a big hoot. Now you can also order hot snacks by sms.
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has any one done a survey on how many of todays children came after a drive in movie? in australia the movie that drew audiences was 'the case of the smiling stiffs.
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Australia has a similar car culture to the USA and we also had drive-ins. I first saw "Star Wars" at the local drive in, a 15km drive from my house. I even "made out" at the drive in with my wife in our 1960's EH Holden which featured bench seats, a must for drive in romance. I actually owned this car during the 80's but it was identical to the one my parents drove in the 60's 70's.
I remember people with station wagons used to back into their parking spot then open the tailgate and watch the movies lying in the back with pillows and sleeping bags. The drive in at my town was 50/50 cars and seats, it was on a point near the ocean and you would look out to the sides and see the waves sparkling in the moonlight. I have also been to drive ins that had a playground located in front of the elevated screen so you couls see your kids playing and watch the movie at the same time.
In Australia they are mostly gone now.
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as a european ive never been to a drive in :), i did do a float in once :) you had to come with a boat. like the idea of more personal space.
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That first paragraph puzzled me... there were drive-ins with more than one screen? I've never seen such a thing! But I've been to the drive-in theater a lot. The guy who owned our local theater had a day job working with my mother, but he never mentioned seeing me at the theater to her, even that time we had to get his help in letting our friends out of the trunk.
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A 1991 movie called Proof, starring Hugo Weaving as a blind photographer and Russel Crowe as his friend, has a key scene set in a drive-in. Hugo's character gets into trouble while Russel's is off at concessions, because the couple in the next car thing he's staring at them.
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This one... awesome. But you have to get there early on Friday and Saturday. For obvious reasons 'tis VERY popular. There would be much weeping if it were to disappear.

Don't forget your pillow...!!


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There's a drive-in just outside of my town, and it's just delightful. It's only one screen, but they show a double-feature each weekend - usually first-run movies that are just opening that same weekend. You can bring your own food, though the concession stand is quite good.

My friends and I usually form a posse and get there just after the gates open, park down front, and have a game night and smorgasbord before the first movie starts.
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Miss Cellania, there is a four screen drive-in still active in the city of Montclair, Ca. Daytime it's a swap meet, which is where the owner really makes their money, but at night you have your choice of four screens, all showing double features.
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I remember the Apollo Drive-In in Garland, Texas. Mom would drive by and we would catch 2 minutes of tons of 70's movies. There were 4 screens and yes you could spy a couple of movies at one time but you had to park in certain spots that made viewing crappy.
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Another PA are still alive and well in rural Pennsylvania! There are 2 within 10 miles of my parents' house, and each has 3 screens showing double features every night during the summer. There's not a ton to do around there, so they get packed. Everyone brings picnic blankets and snacks and the kids run around and play baseball while we wait for it to get dark. I just saw Toy Story 3 in the Brownsville PA drive-in last week. One of the best things about coming from such a boring, little place!
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The Starlight Drive In in Atlanta has six screens and it's going strong. They do have a swap-meet in the daytime on weekends.

Each screen shows a double feature and they usually have different first run or second run movies on all screens.

Sometimes there is one screen showing cheesy horror classics.

The drive in abuts a huge old cemetery, so scary movies do well there. It has built in atmosphere.
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Texas Highways Magazine recently did an article on drive-in movie theaters in Texas. There are now 16 of them!

And their locations:
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Thought not a movie, I can recall an episode of a sitcom where the father drags his family to see some movies at a drive-in showing his favourite actor (Sonny Tufts?), and they are the only people who stay to see all the movies. At the end, they are approached by a man who turns out to be the actor himself and who thanks them for staying to see his movies. I can’t recall the name of the sitcom though ….
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