Since the drive-ins’ golden years in the 1950s, theaters in North Carolina have dwindled from more than 200 to single digits. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, the state was down to six drive-in sites as of March 2014. Today, just three locations are listed as active members of the trade group.
David Weber, a communications professor at UNC-Wilmington, said he thinks it’s unlikely the platform will regain popularity — particularly given the high number of drive-in closures and more convenient movie-streaming services like Netflix and pay-per-view.
“I have a feeling the industry’s done,” said Weber, a drive-in connoisseur. “It’s entered a decline, and one by one, they’ll probably drop off and that’ll be it.”
Weber said there’s potential for a niche market that offers an “ironic hipster appeal,” but drive-ins’ future is uncertain.
In its heyday, the drive-in was more than a nighttime activity — for some theatergoers, it was a home away from home, he said.
“It’s a place where you go to be alone with a loved one, a romantic partner — it’s a place where you would go with your family to get out of the house,” he said.
Weber said he remembers pajama-clad viewers perched on the rooftops of their cars, taking in the stars, the moonlight and their natural surroundings.
“We’re outdoors, beautiful night sky, just the feeling of family companionship that was sort of being generated in our car,” he said.
Weber said he doubts many individuals under ages 30 to 35 hold the same nostalgic feelings. But Hannah Scruggs, a UNC sophomore, has heartfelt memories of her own.
A native of Rutherford County, Scruggs and her sister would frequent Sunset Drive-In in Shelby, one of the state’s few remaining venues.
“That’s (one of) the few times we typically get along really well,” Scruggs joked of their trips.
Scruggs said Sunset Drive-In has maintained a wide audience, showing more kid-friendly features, like “Monsters Inc.,” before showing PG-13 or R-rated movies.
Though it retains many traditional traits of drive-ins depicted in films like “Grease,” Scruggs said the experience has become more comfortable and flexible, especially for families and large groups.
Once graveled and neatly arranged, she said the viewing area is now adorned with soft grass and lawn chairs as alternatives to sitting inside a car. With woods behind the several-stories-tall projector, Scruggs said there’s little to distract from the image.
She said it still has some quirks people can’t find at a cineplex and that she and her family tune their radios to listen to movies as they drive by.
Sunset Drive-In recently upgraded to a digital projector, a roadblock that has impeded many drive-ins’ futures, necessitating expensive updates and remodels.
The remaining drive-ins in North Carolina are closed for the winter. But Scruggs said that in season, the Sunset Drive-In continues to be packed with cars and people eager for a showing.
“I think they’ll sustain it pretty well,” she said. “It’s a classic in Shelby that some people love to do.”
Craig Askew, operations manager of the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre — the oldest operating drive-in in the state — said his family has been associated with the drive-in for all of its 67 years. As a little boy, he said he remembers going with his uncle, who was the theater’s first projectionist. There, he saw “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Later in life, he recalls going to the drive-in on dates with his wife.
Askew said the Raleigh theater underwent a remodeling about nine years ago, but the classic memories still hold true. Now, he said, the only real difference is the quality of their picture, a crisp 60-foot-by-80-foot digital screen.
“It is something very special, a lot of people have discovered,” Askew said.