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Drive In
Gary Yokoyama/The Hamilton Spectator
A typical movie hard drive in a protective hard case.

Allen, head of Premier Theatres, has drive-ins across Ontario and says 2012 was one of the chain’s best years ever, driven partly by investments in new equipment (digital screens). Reinventing their business is a family tradition for the Allens — they’ve been in the movie business in one form or another since 1907, either operating movie houses or distributing films and, most recently, as operators of Ontario’s largest chain of drive-ins.

The world’s first drive-in, or automobile movie theatre as is was called then, opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. That venture only lasted three years, but the idea took root and grew rapidly with changes in technology, especially the in-car speaker that vastly improved audio quality.

By the 1950s the drive-in had become a mainstay of the era’s auto culture, with the number of sites across the United States peaking at 4,063 in 1958. Starting in the 1960s, and continuing through the 1980s, however, a series of body blows sent the industry into decline. These challenges included the solidification of daylight time that forced later starts during the crucial summer months while the rise of colour television, VCRs and the multiplex offered new competition.

Faced with those challenges, many sites succumbed to the lure of real estate development — a drive-in can occupy up to 12 hectares of land for which builders of strip malls and town house complexes will offer hefty premiums. That was the fate of the other three drive-ins that Hamilton used to support — the Stoney Creek on Barton Street and others on the west Mountain (Hamilton Drive-in) and near Waterdown (Clappison Drive-in).

The Stoney Creek Drive-in, by the way, was the first in Ontario. It opened in 1946 and closed in 1970.

Today, the United Drive-In Theatre Owner’s Association says there are 368 sites operating in the United States with 611 screens. The Internet site estimates there are now only 56 drive-ins open in Canada including about 22 in Ontario.

In more recent years the industry has been staging a comeback of sorts as new owners update their properties for a new audience.

“First television was supposed to kill us, then the video recorder was going to kill us but people still come out,” Allen said. “People have kitchens but they still go to restaurants because they want a chance to socialize.”

Statistics Canada captured some of this revival in 2006 when it published the last of its periodic surveys of theatre attendance. The federal number crunchers reported attendance at drive-ins had risen more than 20 per cent in 2004, ending eight straight years of declines. That rise was accompanied by a 6.9 per cent drop in the average admission price. During that year five new drive-ins opened and only one closed.

Premier has been a leader in that push, pouring investments into digital projectors for its sites as well as making physical improvements.

The experience at the Starlite is typical. Premier bought the Green Mountain Road theatre in 2004, adding it to a portfolio the company owns or manages in London, Barrie, Oakville and other places. By 2007 the single aging screen was replaced with three new ones and in April of this year digital projectors were added. The theatre’s three viewing areas can accommodate at least 780 cars.

Drive In
Gary Yokoyama/The Hamilton Spectator
Starlite Drive-in owner Brian Allen holds a movie hard drive cassette which has replaced the traditional 35mm film reels in the projection room.

The decision to go digital was also driven by the fact movie studios intend to stop making movies on film next year, converting to digital content. The National Association of Theatre Owners has said the cost of going digital could drive as many 20 per cent of smaller theatres and drive-ins out of business.

Allen said the move to digital quality pictures, along with the “traditional” drive-in amenities such as play areas for children, will sell the drive-in as an affordable, family-friendly night at the movies, an alternative to a $100 outing to the multiplex. At current general admission prices of $11.50 for adults and $8.99 for children under 13, a family of four would drop $41 just for admission to a single movie at SilverCity in Ancaster — before they even get near the concession stand. Prices run to more than $17 for 3-D or IMAX movies. At the drive-in, however, admission is $10 per adult and, $2 per child — $24 — and every show is a double bill that also includes a vintage cartoon.


Regarding our Trivia Question on Facebook:

Monday Trivia: How many drive-in theatres
are there ‘today’ in USA & Canada? a. 102 b. 397 c. 424

The right answer is c. 424. There are 368 sites operating in the US with 611 screens, and  56 drive-ins in Canada including about 22 in Ontario.

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