The drive-in theater used to be part of the American dream in the 1950s and the 1960s, as its popularity resulted largely from the exodus of millions of Americans moving to the single house developed along the outskirts of big cities, and the baby boom generation grew up watching films in family cars in the open air. According to the NATO (National Association for Theater Owners) statistics, at its heyday, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters across the United States, making the drive-in theater a cinematic landmark. It is a little unimaginable, but in the late 1950s, America had more drive-in movie theaters than indoor screens.
But every indication right now points at the direction that the outdoor drive-in theater is fast disappearing. By the end of 2009, NATO statistics says, there were only 628 drive-in theaters left in America, and this number is shrinking everyday, particularly at a time when converting to digital projection seems to be inevitable and the conversion cost is usually too high for independent exhibitors to afford.
Partly due to its endangered status, and partly due to my childhood experience of watching Communist propaganda films in the open air in China, I decided to spend my New Year’s Eve at a local drive-in theater called Mission Tiki. Opened in 1956 as a single screen drive-in, Mission Tiki now has four screens, and it is divided into four connected lots, each screen/lot playing two films at the same time. In winter, the double-feature screening starts at 7:00pm when it is completely dark, and ends around 11:00pm. The picture quality is decent, but certainly not as good, sharp, and bright as that in indoor theaters, and the sound is transmitted through FM radios, although not comparable to theater sound, at least perfectly synced.
Surprisingly, Mission Tiki plays first-run films. I watched Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol and The Sitter (a silly comedy) on New Year’s Eve 2012. Although I’ve been living in America for more than two decades, this is my first visit to the drive-in theater. There were only about 10 cars in my lot, which perhaps is another sign indicating that this kind of cinema venue will soon become extinct.
No matter what holds true for the future of the drive-in theater, however, I must say that it was quite an unique and stimulating experience to visit Mission Tiki on New Year’s Eve 2012. It brought my childhood memory back and brightened my New Year’s day. Let’s all remain hopeful for year 2012.