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Rise of the guerrilla drive-in

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

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"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."

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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 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."