The first drive-in movie theater was opened on June 6, 1933, by salesman Richard M. Hollingshead in Camden, N.J. On the bill was a twilight showing of the British comedy Wife Beware. Hollingshead had worked out the technology with a 1928 Kodak projector that he mounted on the hood of his car and aimed at a sheet. The film was a little-known second-run feature, and the neighbors complained about the noise.
From those decidedly humble beginnings, a U.S. institution was born, one that exploded in the post--World War II automobile culture. The drive-in era peaked in 1958, with nearly 5,000 theaters across the U.S. But in 1966, daylight saving time led to summer showings at 9 p.m., making the screenings less appealing to families. Air-conditioned theaters trumped steamy summer nights, and by the 1980s, the VCR and cable TV dealt another blow to the ailing industry. By 1995, fewer than 500 drive-ins were left.
But just when it seemed as if the iconic U.S. entertainment form was headed for extinction, a mini-revival began. Fueled by a blast of nostalgia as well as families tired of spending upwards of $50 to take the kids to the multiplex, new drive-ins have opened in Texas, Montana, Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New York, while all over the country, vintage theaters have been renovated. Websites like drive-in.net and driveintheater.com keep aficionados updated about openings and showtimes.
A new generation of movie fans is taking its cue from Hollingshead, fusing modern technology with his old-school concept of a drive-in, creating do-it-yourself outdoor movie experiences. DVD players, digital projectors and iPods have put the technology of drive-in movies into the hands of anyone with a technological bent. In California, the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In collective has combined a love of movies with a mission to reclaim public space by staging word-of-mouth screenings of films ranging from politically subversive shorts to Dirty Dancing, and it has inspired other guerrilla-flick efforts in Portland, Me., and West Chester, Pa. In Berkeley, Calif., Web developer Bryan Kennedy turned his car into a mobile movie unit, a sort of drive-in that actually drives in, with a DVD player, a projector and an FM transmitter that beams a movie's sound track to other cars. His technology has given rise to the MobMov movement, with chapters worldwide, creating free film venues in any open space. Kennedy offers directions for getting started at mobmov.org
Sometimes impromptu screenings become institutions themselves. In 1997, New York City filmmaker Mark Elijah Rosenberg set up a 16-mm projector and a white sheet on the roof of his East Village apartment building and began screening short films. A decade later, RoofTop Films has evolved into a full-scale, summer-long festival, with submissions from around the world. This year the event will screen 48 independent films at various locations--all of them under the stars.