The drive-in is still thrivin'

AT 8 o'clock on a balmy Saturday evening, Mike Brown and his family look as if they're getting ready to spend the day at the beach instead of waiting for ``Beetlejuice'' to appear on a drive-in movie screen. But the five adults and four children, equipped with lawn chairs, blankets, and a cooler of refreshments, have ``camped out'' at the Winnetka Drive-In movie theater in Chatsworth, Calif., because they prefer the convenience, price, and casual atmosphere of the outdoor movie experience.

``It's a great place to bring the kids. You don't need a baby sitter, and you don't have to worry about how much noise you make,'' Mr. Brown says.

Those reasons and others help keep business at this six-screen, 2,230-car drive-in thriving. Although the drive-in is fast becoming a dinosaur industry around the country, in California and much of the Sunbelt, many are still turning a profit.

A warmer climate in these regions ensures that big screens can operate year-round. Many theaters show first-run pictures - movies that open in the drive-in the same date as the walk-in - and have been renovated to better serve patrons.

``There's a serious misconception about the demise of the drive-in. They're doing very well in the Sunbelt states,'' says Robert Selig, president of the National Association of Theater Owners of California. ``I don't want to say they're booming, but they're doing as well as they've ever done, and in many cases better.''

Drive-ins hit their peak in 1958 with 4,063 screens. But as of August 1987 only 2,084 remained, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Skyrocketing real estate prices in prime urban areas have prompted owners to sell these valuable tracts of land. The property is then usually converted into shopping malls, office buildings, or indoor theaters.

That's what has happened to many of the drive-ins owned by the National Amusements Company in Dedham, Mass. ``Five years ago we had 40 drive-ins; now we have 20,'' says chief operating officer Ira Korff. Mr. Korff, whose company owns 450 screens in the United States and England, has his own theory on why drive-ins are doing better in the West. ``One reason is that they can run year-round, and also because California has a much more automobile-oriented culture than we have here,'' he says.

The drive-ins succeeding today do so because they have been updated and upgraded, says Don Immenschuh, a district manager at Pacific Theaters, a Los Angeles-based company that owns numerous walk-ins and 90 drive-ins, including the Winnetka.

Indeed, many ``passion pits'' of the '50s have undergone a '70s and '80s face lift. One-screen theaters of the ``American Graffiti'' era have been turned into theaters with multiple screens, giving customers the option of choosing from a variety of movies. The Winnetka, which opened in 1975 with four screens, added two more in 1985. And a drive-in built during the mid-'70s in Glendale, Ariz., boasts nine screens.

But the fun doesn't stop there. For moviegoers who also like to frolic in water, now there's the dive-in movie - a pool-turned-theater that Raging Waters, a 44-acre water amusement park in San Dimas, Calif., opened two years ago as a weekend feature. Viewers can watch such movies as ``Creature From the Black Lagoon'' and Walt Disney's ``Lady and the Tramp'' while floating in inner tubes.

In many theaters, the large car speakers are gone. Now, a sound system called cine-fi allows the audience to tune in the sound track on car radios. Modern snack bars whip up pizzas and burritos. Running popular, current films instead of grade-B or ``slasher'' movies also helps draw customers.

Mr. Selig says Pacific Theaters is hoping to introduce a containment screen, which would confine the sight lines to paying customers in the given area. This would block all images from moviegoers watching in an adjoining theater or cars traveling on the freeway.

Prices to see a drive-in movie across the country range from $5 a carload to $4 a person. At the Winnetka, a movie and a bonus feature cost adults $4, while kids under 12 are free. To supplement their profits, a number of drive-ins rent out flea market space on the weekends.

Today's audience represents a potpourri of moviegoers. ``We still have a few neckers, we get a lot of family trade, and we get a lot of older people. But the major audience today in a drive-in theater out here is the young married couple with two or more children who can't afford a baby sitter and don't want to pay the parking fees,'' Selig says.

But drive-ins - part of American culture since 1933, when Richard Hollingshead opened the first outdoor theater in Camden, N.J. - are still places where traditions live on.

``It's private,'' giggles teen-ager Leighann Plehn, as she and Elliot Aguayo of Simi Valley, Calif., relax in a red pickup truck at ``Friday the 13th Part VII.'' ``We just kick back and have a good time together. That's what it's all about.''

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