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What is a Drive-In Theater?

By S. Gonzales
Updated May 17, 2024
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A drive-in theater is a type of a movie theater that is located outdoors. Moviegoers are meant to drive into the theater and park their cars in front of a large screen that displays the movie. A drive-in theater typically contains a large screen, a designated parking area, a projection booth and a concession stand.

Though many drive-in theaters include the above attributes, variations can exist between theaters. For example, the outdoor screen can be either a large wall painted white or a structure specially built to display the movie. Similarly, the sound from a movie can be produced by loud communal speakers, produced by small individual speakers placed inside the car or transmitted into the car over the radio. The latter is the cheaper and most popular means for moviegoers to receive the movie's sound.

A drive-in theater also can boast special attractions. Playgrounds for children might be offered so that kids are allowed to enjoy themselves while parents watch films. Merry-go-rounds, miniature railroads and mini golf courses also can be included within a drive-in theater for added decor or as another type of attraction. It wasn't unusual for some drive-in theaters to include an attraction such as a petting zoo with exotic animals.

Drive-in theaters operate with the idea that moviegoers will remain seated in their cars for the majority of the film's run time, but many theaters give patrons an alternative. Some offer lawn chairs and patios. Others might treat their concession stand like a restaurant, providing indoor seating for those who prefer to sit down at a table and eat.

The benefits of visiting a drive-in theater are many. Moviegoers are able to watch a movie comfortably within their own vehicles and are afforded privacy while doing so. This will reduce intrusion, so it can result in a more pleasurable viewing experience. One potential drawback of attending a drive-in theater is that the movies are best visited at night, because the screen is exposed to light from the sun, which can make viewing difficult during the day.

Drive-in theaters saw their heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s. The rise of land values, increased business costs and the advent of the television and videocassette recorder (VCR) made drive-in theaters difficult for many owners to continue operating. Many of those that remain open in the 21st century are marketed as novelties.

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Discussion Comments
By pollick — On Jan 20, 2014

We still have one drive-in theater in our area, but there used to be four or five back in the 1950s and 1960s. I remember attendance dropping way off during the 1970s, so the drive-in theater managers started showing triple features of either low budget horror movies or hardcore pornography. Some of us would find locations around the perimeter of the theater and watch the movies for free. This is probaby another reason why most drive-ins closed down by the 1980s.

I think with the advent of good 3D technology and surround sound, there's really no advantage with drive-in theater other than privacy. Movies today are mostly designed with indoor theaters in mind, with speakers placed strategically around the auditorium and the screen focused precisely. A drive-in theater can only use a car's stereo radio system for sound and the projection system isn't always the best. I like the idea of a drive-in theater for nostalgia's sake, but I don't think it's the best way to watch a modern movie.

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