News Column

Drive-in theaters, like the Holiday Twin in Fort Collins, hang on as thriving family businesses

August 4, 2014

By Josh Rhoten, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne

Aug. 04--The sun has only just started to slump behind Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, but already there is a slight line to get into the Holiday Twin Drive-In.

Fingers of orange are spreading across clouds that only just recently stopped pouring rain and are drifting towards Colorado's eastern plains. Now, little children begin the business of splashing through the puddles while their parents build nests in the back of their SUVs and chat about their workweeks with their neighbors.

When the sun finally sets, the theater's two screens will flicker to life, dancing with light and magic. For now, there is just nervous excitement.

Family-owned and -operated, the Twin Drive-In is part of a dying tradition in America. It dates back to a time when the car became a personal space, even a mobile home, to each and every person in the country.

At its peak, when teens and families were visiting drives-ins regularly, there were about 4,000 locations across the U.S., accounting for 25 percent of the screens in the country, according to the Los Angeles Times. Today, there are only about 300 drive-in theaters working in America.

Stephanie Webb and her husband, Wes, have owned this little parcel of land west of town since 1996. That was back before development had yet to stretch past Shields Street. Today, the property is indeed very valuable as urban sprawl has pushed up on the theater on three sides with Colorado State University'sHughes Stadium pushing in from the north, creating a situation that is familiar to many drive-in owners today.

Webb runs the show from her office above the snack bar, hot and muggy tonight from the late rain. Leaning forward in her chair, she carefully lays out her family's history with the business.

"Originally, Wes was buying these theaters and pieces of land with the forethought of selling them as cities caught up to the open space," she said. "So at one point, he owned six of these and actually we thought this would be the first one to sell if we ever got around to it."

As it happens, Twin is the family's last, due in part to what Webb said is a great location and a lot of support from the community. The family took a major role in operating the park in 2010, and now on weekends you will see them working the grill, helping with the projector or doing anything else that needs done around the facility.

Down in front of the second screen, Tricia Diehl is folding up extra chairs and tents in anticipation of the movie starting. A Fort Collins resident, Diehl often brings her family to screenings, but tonight is a special event, as her son has brought friends along for a birthday party.

"I had great memories of coming out to drive-ins as a kid and wanted to give that to my kids as well," she said. "It feels like an adventure because you are in a different environment. The kids just love it, so I thought, why not make it a party?"

The drive-in theater experience developed as Americans began treating their car as another home. The first theaters were built in a post-World War II frenzy and grew as more and more people became car owners. In the 1950s, Americans began eating in their cars and planning lengthy road trips. The drive-in fit this pattern perfectly and business was booming.

There are a dozen different explanations for why the trend died down and out in the 1970s and following decades. Some people point to the advent of cable TV, though that certainly didn't slow the indoor theater business. Others point to changes in the moviegoing experience -- you can't really experience surround sound from a tiny speaker.

A simple explanation is drive-ins were family businesses, and in many cases, youngsters wanted no part of it. As the owners aged, the cities that surrounded their lots moved closer and closer. Soon, the plots were more valuable for things like Walmart Superstores than drive-ins. There wasn't even much to bulldoze when the property changed hands.

Before long, you couldn't find a place to see a drive-in movie even if you wanted to. Outdoor theaters were turned into parking lots, shopping malls and housing developments.

While the industry had a bit of a rebirth in the 1990s, many theaters struggled again in early 2013 when Hollywood announced that they would stop distributing 35-millimeter film prints. To stay in business, theater owners would have to switch to digital projection units at costs of about $70,000, money that many mom and pop locations with seasonal summer schedules just didn't have.

Webb said her family was fortunate enough to plan for this switch for a few years in advance and be in a position to pay for the upgrade.

"It still wound up costing about $350,000, including getting a new building and making sure the room for the system was dustproof and everything else," she said. "It was not cheap."

Still, the theaters that have managed to make the conversions are experiencing healthy crowds in some cases. Part of that is because many like the Twin show double features of first run films for cheap. Webb also pointed to the nostalgic experience of coming to a drive in, which she says is motivating millennials eager for the experience.

"We try and keep it as vintage as possible, and we also try to make it as safe, clean and friendly as possible," she said. "People also like the flexibility of it, because you are in your own little car with blankets and pillows plus snacks."

That flexibility is exactly what Fort Collins resident Nick Bacon and his family come for. Nick said they have been coming to the drive-in for years, talking to the folks in cars around them before and after the movie. He compared the atmosphere to a tailgate in a lot of ways.

"We throw a bunch of pillows and sleeping bags in the back of the SUV and bring a few lawn chairs, too," he said. "You meet so many interesting people."

Nick's son, Tyler, 9, said he liked coming out as well.

"I get to eat a lot of candy and the screen is really big," he said.

Cory Sanders and his family drove down from Cheyenne and said they were pleasantly surprised by the experience.

"We went while we were in Texas, but this is a different sort of feeling here. It's very communal ... In Texas, everyone kept to themselves," he said. "Plus the weather is a lot better here."

The United Drive-in Owner's Association is a nonprofit group founded in 1999. In addition to offering news about the trends in the industry, the group also keeps records of active drive-ins across the U.S.

As of March, Wyoming is one of five states without a drive-in venue. That isn't likely to change as the group estimates it costs about $300,000 to build a new single-screen theater. That includes problems specific to drive-ins, like buying a digital projection unit that can project images the length of a football fields and creating ramps in the field to help with sight lines.

D. Edward Vogel, a spokesman for the group and owner of a drive-in in Maryland, said many of the theaters still standing are due to the love and care of owners and families like Webb.

"Put it to you this way: If this was an easy business, the big theater chains would be in it," he said. "Most of these places are open because the people are willing to work hard to keep things going because they love it. There is a huge devotion."

Vogel said drive-ins were the last diversity in America, a standing exception to the sterile indoor chain theaters that have cropped up across the country.

"They date back to a kinder time when people were open and having a communal experience wasn't such a strange thing," he said.

The industry has also seen some growth in places like China, where the culture is just now reaching a point where owning a car is no longer a luxury. Growth in that country is also due to support from the government, which has made an effort to encourage cultural events and programs. A healthy dose of novelty and interest in American kitsch has helped quite a bit as well, with box offices there reporting a steady 20 to 30 percent growth each year.

Meanwhile, theaters like the Twin in the U.S. are having to work hard to make enough money to stay open.

In addition to the regular screenings, the Twin recently hosted a simulcast showing of a Jimmy Buffett concert. A local live band kicked off the evening and the snack bar offered specialized foods like Caribbean pulled pork sandwiches and, of course, cheeseburgers in paradise.

Webb said that much of the money the theater makes comes from the concession stand. In addition to the standard popcorn and candy, the stand offers grilled burgers, flavored cotton candy and popcorn.

"The hope is that people will come and spend the money they saved on tickets on snacks," she said.

With the sun finally ducking behind the ridge, the lot fills with the sounds of classic oldies as car radios are tuned to the proper stations. Joyfully, families climb into their cars and settle in for the night.

Over the years, Webb said her family had entertained offers on the business, but always decided to stay.

"Wes said the people will let us know when it's time to leave. But for now, we just love the people too much," she said.

If you go

What: The Holiday Twin Drive-in Theater is currently running their summer season, which includes double features for first run films.

Where: 2206 S. Overland Trail, Fort Collins, Colorado

When: Box office opens at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. Screenings start at sundown. Season runs April to mid-September.

Cost: The box office is cash only. Ages 10 and up are $7, Seniors and children 9 and under are $5.

Details: FM radio sound is used: Bring your own stereo or use your car radio. No alcohol, glass or food delivery. Show goes on rain or shine.


Phone: 970-221-1244


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Source: Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, WY)

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