driveindecay

Last week, the Internet rage machine was in full swing after Silicon Valley VC Hunter Walk pitched an idea to reinvent the movie theater:

I’d love to watch Pacific Rim in a theater with a bit more light, wifi, electricity outlets and a second screen experience. Don’t tell me I’d miss major plot points while scrolling on my iPad – it’s a movie about robots vs monsters. I can follow along just fine.

Judging by the reaction from many moviegoers, it was as if Walk had just been caught making out during Schindler’s List. The Atlantic’s Richard Lawson said it best, writing, “There is still, despite our cynicism, something awe-inspiring about watching a story unfold in a big dark room.” The flame war really kicked into high gear when Anil Dash quite boldly likened movie theater shushers like Lawson to slavery proponents. (Sadly, that ridiculous line overshadowed what was otherwise a thought-provoking piece about what movie theater behavior reveals about cultural norms.)

I tend to side with the Lawsonites while acknowledging that appropriate movie theater behavior, like all social behavior, depends on the time and place. A sober afternoon screening of “The Master” at the ArcLight is not the same as a raucous midnight showing of “The Conjuring” at your local multiplex. (I attended one of these and the audience’s terrified chatter made the experience that much more fun.) But after reading this news piece today, an idea struck me that could give multitasking moviegoers the experience they need while saving a time-honored American tradition: drive-in theaters.

With Hollywood expected to phase out 35 mm prints in favor of digital prints by the end of the year, Honda has launched “Project Drive-In,” a pledge to donate at least five digital projectors to ailing drive-in movie theaters. The idea is that by promoting drive-in culture, Honda is also promoting car culture.

But when was the last time you went to a drive-in movie theater? A year? Five years? Are you too young to even know what a drive-in theater is?

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I probably went to at least a hundred drive-in showings. It was the perfect cinematic pastime for a big cash-strapped pre-digital family. You could avoid enormous concession prices because there were no rules against bringing your own snacks. Each car had its own sound delivery system so if us kids got chatty we wouldn’t annoy the fellow audience members. And if we got really restless, my parents could pack up and drive away without having to grope their way through a pitch-black theater. Plus we got to watch a movie outside, which rules.

But like so many other American institutions the drive-in is dying and has been for a while. According to DriveInTheater.com, drive-ins suffered their first major hit between 1982 and 1987, thanks to the proliferation of multiplexes and the rising popularity of the VCR. Now, the home alternatives to drive-ins are cushier than ever, with the increased affordability of big HD televisions, and Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu offering a smorgasbord of on-demand programming. According to the LA Times, drive-ins once accounted for 25 percent of the nation’s movie screens. Today, that number’s down to 1.5 percent.

But as bad off as drive-ins are now, things are only going to get worse once Hollywood stops distributing 35 mm film prints. Unfortunately, the vast majority of drive-ins don’t have and can’t afford digital projectors, which cost around $70,000.

To save the drive-in it will take more than what Honda’s offering. Five digital projectors will only save five drive-ins. It’s also going to take more than crowdfunding, that modern false panacea, to get drive-ins back on their feet. That’s what Vermont’s Fairlee theater found when it tried to raise money to buy a digital projector. It’s only raised $17,500 since April.

But beyond getting the digital projectors, here are a few other ideas to make drive-ins appealing to a new breed of filmgoers:

First, install wi-fi and emphasize the second screen experience. (For what it’s worth I hate the phrase “second screen experience,” but until we come up with a better one, it will have to do.) Your texting and tweeting and business calls won’t bother anyone here.

Second, (and this part won’t appeal to Honda but oh well) de-emphasize the car requirement and make it more like Williamsburg’s Summerscreen outdoor film series or Screen on the Green in my home city Columbus, OH. Plant grass over the chunky gravel viewing area if it’s not already there and encourage blankets and picnic baskets and wine.

But keep the private audio systems so you can still chat to your heart’s desire. And while we’re at it, why not install USB and power outlets? Maybe you can even let the big time audiophiles bring their own BOSE systems to plug in if they so choose.

As for who will pay for this, why not the VCs like Walk who are looking for a more connected moviegoing experience? Old, outmoded technologies and traditions shouldn’t be revived for their own sake. But the drive-in is a unique case, where the things that make it outdated can be adapted to address new world needs and preferences, like the desire to tweet and text and talk during a movie without igniting the ire of those oppressive shushers.

[Image via Thomas and Dianne Jones]