Honda Crusade Could Save Hundreds of Drive-In Theaters


  • Project Drive-In Logo Picture

    Project Drive-In Logo Picture

    Honda is on a mission to save drive-in movie theaters. | August 12, 2013

Just the Facts:
  • Honda's new Project Drive-In hopes to save some of the iconic outdoor theaters from certain doom.
  • Visitors to the Project Drive-In Web site can vote for the theaters that will receive five new digital film projectors.
  • The winning theaters will host a special screening of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 on September 27.

TORRANCE, California — Honda has announced a new campaign that could save hundreds of U.S. drive-in theaters from certain doom.

Project Drive-In is a nationwide push to assist the iconic outdoor theaters as 35mm film distribution is phased out this year. Switching to expensive digital projection technology could otherwise spell the end for many of them.

Honda is kicking things off with a donation of at least five digital projectors. Visitors to Honda's Project Drive-In site can vote to help determine which theaters will get them. Voting began on August 9 and will end on September 9.

Each winning theater will host a celebration on September 27, featuring a screening of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, a new release by Sony Pictures Animations.

Honda is also hoping to raise community awareness and spur grassroots campaigns to save many other drive-ins across the country. As people share the new Web site with family and friends, the hope is that they will pledge to see at least one movie at a local drive-in and contribute to the Project Drive-In Fund, which will provide equipment to keep even more theaters in business.

Among other fund-raising activities, Honda will hold an online auction featuring tickets to the Los Angeles premiere of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, as well as other film-related items. And some Honda dealers will host free pop-up drive-ins to show the movie and boost local support.

"Cars and drive-in theaters go hand-in-hand and it's our mission to save this decades-old slice of Americana that holds such nostalgia for so many of us," said Alicia Jones, manager of Honda & Acura social marketing at American Honda Motor Co.

Drive-in theaters were invented by Richard Hollingshead, who tested the concept by nailing a bed sheet to a tree in his backyard and projecting a film onto it using a 1928 Kodak projector. Sound was provided by a radio behind the screen. He received a patent for the idea on May 16, 1933.

Hollingshead opened the first commercial drive-in in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933. The first film shown there was Wives Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou. Although this theater only operated for three years, the idea caught on, and soon drive-ins began cropping up from coast to coast.

The popularity of drive-ins peaked in the 1950s and '60s, with more than 4,000 outdoor theaters in the U.S. Many people liked the idea of watching a movie in the familiar surroundings of their own car. Some preferred drive-ins because they could drink alcohol while enjoying a film. And of course the additional privacy was appreciated for non-cinematic reasons.

During the 1970s, with their popularity waning, many drive-ins tried to survive by adding amusement rides, petting zoos and special promotions. Some began showing more risqué films than the family-oriented movies they previously featured. But clearly their heyday was over, and the decline continued over the next several decades.

Drive-ins had the disadvantage of only being able to show films after dark and land had become expensive in many areas. Meanwhile, indoor theaters kept improving their sound systems and adding conveniences. At the same time, at-home entertainment had blossomed with the advent of cable and satellite television, premium movie channels and surround-sound systems. All of this combined to make drive-ins a losing proposition.

But there has been a bit of a resurgence of interest in drive-ins in recent years. Many older people remember drive-ins fondly and would welcome a nostalgic return to those earlier times. And some younger folk might appreciate the novelty of seeing movies from a car.

Edmunds says: Maybe Honda is onto something. Project Drive-In may just be the catalyst for a new movement.

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