Rise of the guerrilla drive-in

Mobile, open-air movie theaters pop up across the country.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Sub Rosa’s founders Larry Clow (left) and Bryan White announce shows on short notice via the Web. Audio is played on FM radio.
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    Viewers catch the cult classic thriller ‘The Warriors’ (1978) at the Sub Rosa Drive-In, a mobile theater that operates around Dover, N.H., projecting onto large pieces of fabric.
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On a July evening, Larry Clow and Bryan White hang two white dropcloths from the back of a gas station in Dover, N.H., to screen the 1979 flick, "The Warriors." They prep the projector and switch on an FM transmitter as 10 cars pull into a gravel parking lot to enjoy the show. It's not unlike the first drive-in movie theater experience.

In 1933, Richard Hollingshead Jr. projected home movies onto a screen hanging between two trees in his backyard in Camden, N.J.

Originally, it was a marketing idea he dreamed up to get people to purchase oil and other products from his family's gas station. Seventy-six years later, Mr. Hollingshead's invention is struggling to survive.

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In their 1950s heyday, drive-in movie theaters around the nation reached 5,000. Today, there are 383, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

But avid movie-lovers and those who have fond memories of watching movies under the stars are trying to bring back the essence of the drive-in by doing it themselves. They're lugging projectors, FM transmitters, and even snacks in the back of their cars and screening movies at locations as diverse as the side of a Cineplex and a grain silo in the middle of a field. Call it the guerrilla drive-in. Across the United States, people are hosting screenings of cult classics and mainstream movies.

In West Chester, Pa., John Young invites people to secret screenings by preparing a scavenger hunt. As the founder of the West Chester Guerilla Drive-In, he says the only way people can find the location of the movie is by hunting down the MacGuffin – an AM transmitter broadcasting a secret code – hidden somewhere in the middle of town. His movie events usually require a bit of hiking or a sense of adventure. Think watching the 1980s horror flick "The Thing" in January snow or sitting on the top of a parking garage overlooking a city's clock tower while watching "Back to the Future." Since 2004, Mr. Young has been screening all his movies on a 16-millimeter projector housed in the sidecar of his 1977 BMW motorcycle.

In Oklahoma City, Aaron Gibson has been showing fan favorites such as "The Big Lebowski" and "Raising Arizona" on the side of a concrete warehouse adjacent to a rock climbing gym he co-owns. He founded "The Renegade Drive-In" in 2007 and before each screening shows old commercials and drive-in movie theater clips from the past.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., a group of six people, who formed the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In, have screened 99 movies in 13 locations since 2002. The group projects movies underneath a bridge overlooking a river or on the side of a local Cineplex and views the shows as a way to bring community together and reclaim public space, says Wes Modes, a member of the group. "A lot of times we're showing movies in violation of the law," he adds. "We want to challenge those laws."

Watching movies under the stars goes back to 1906, when Hawaiians used to watch silent Kinescope films projected on the side of buildings, says Susan Sanders, coauthor of "The American Drive-In Movie Theatre" and "Drive-In Movie Memories."

"As soon as the projector was invented, people started trying to figure out a way to watch movies outdoors," she says. But Hollingshead "figured a way to marry the car and the movie. It was brilliant." For the past 10 years, Ms. Sanders says she's seen more people re-creating drive-in experiences in places such as museums, parks, and hotels. And as the recession has taken hold, the drive-in movie theater has experienced a rebirth of sorts, she says. "If you were going to go out for an evening, the drive-in was something that was really affordable."

Bryan Kennedy, founder of Mobile Movie, a do-it-yourself drive-in, says more people (around 60-70 cars per show) have been coming to his screenings around San Francisco perhaps because of the down economy. "Lots of people come out to the show because it's free or cheap and it's something new to try. It sure beats paying $20 at the Cineplex."

Mr. Kennedy started Mobile Movie after hearing about the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In and began screening movies on the sides of buildings and watching them in cars with his friends. Eventually, he created a website with a tutorial to show others how to set up their own drive-ins. His website mobmov.org now lists 255 Mobile Movie chapters, who host their own drive-in screenings worldwide.

Starting a guerrilla drive-in may seem simple, but as White and Clow, cofounders of the Sub Rosa Drive-In, discovered, it can be tricky. During their first secret screening, the car battery died and the movie had to end early. During the second screening, the cops told them they had to shut down. Things only went downhill from there.

After a local newspaper, the Foster's Daily Democrat, covered their makeshift drive-in, Clow and White were contacted by Swank Motion Pictures, a licensing company, who notified the group that it was illegal to screen a movie without paying for licensing. Now, they pay $100 per screening out of their own pocket – something many hosts of guerrilla drive-ins do. While the screenings are usually free, the hosts of these groups regularly accept donations.

"The first thing that we did when it became clear we were going to have to charge or pay for our licenses was put a call out on our website. Within two hours, we amassed 200 bucks," says White. At their screenings, many are happy to pitch in. At the third Sub Rosa screening, one couple gave Clow and White $10 before the show, for example.

But not all drive-ins pay for licensing. The Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In has not paid for licensing for the past seven years, says Mr. Modes. "We figure that if the corporations that own the copyright want to pursue [Santa Cruz] Guerilla Drive-In, it would probably be a terrible PR move on their part." Modes says they have never had a complaint about licensing and have only encountered police around issues concerning their use of amplified sound.

Licensing issues aside, the creators of guerrilla drive-ins are on a mission to bring back the drive-in theater experience to the masses – whether it's watching a movie in a car or setting up a few lawn chairs to catch a flick.

White, who has always been fascinated by movies, remembers seeing "The Empire Strikes Back" at a drive-in when he was growing up in Binghamton, N.Y. "It just blew my mind. The screen was the size of my house." Now, he wants to share that experience with others by screening movies at his own drive-in theater.

Although drive-ins will probably never experience a boom as they did in the 1950s because of competing forms of entertainment, people are still nostalgic about watching movies outdoors, says Sanders. "Outdoor movies will never die," she adds. "There's something really magical about watching movies under the stars."

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