The Era Of The Drivein Theatres

Although a small number of drive-in theatres had existed in the United States since 1933, this type of exhibition site did not become popular until after the end of World War II.17 The Depression and war years, the inadequate sound technology and, of course, the limited number of automobiles and shortages in petrol (especially during the war years) ensured that the drive-in remained a marginal exhibition site throughout the 1930s. In 1941, the year when in-car speakers were developed, there were forty-one drive-in theatres in the country. That number grew to 300 in 1946 and from then on it started increasing exponentially: 548 in 1947; 820 in 1948; 1,203 in 1949; and 2,202 in 1950.18

In many respects, the staggering rise in the number of drive-in theatres was a direct result of the population migration to the suburbs in the late 1940s, the expanding automobile culture that accompanied it and, significantly, the absence of a number of socialising patterns that were available to people in other western countries, especially the European ones. With most of the first-run theatres located in the centres of large metropolitan areas, often many miles away from the suburbs, drive-ins gave suburbanites an opportunity to maintain their movie-going habit, while at the same time making use of their cars. Furthermore, drive-ins offered considerably cheaper entertainment than indoor theatres. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, drive-ins charged admission per automobile, as opposed to 'hardtop' or indoor movie theatres which charged admission per individual. This meant that a family of six could in fact enjoy a night out for as little as $1.50 or $2.19 Finally, as Andrew Horton argues, the lack of cultivation of 'European' socialising patterns (such as cafes and strolls in the park or a town's central square) in US towns and cities gradually turned the drive-in into a very significant hub for social interaction, especially among members of the younger generations. 20

The drive-in 'craze' became even stronger in the 1950s, forcing the industry's trade publications to acknowledge that it was 'the decade's greatest development from the standpoint of exhibition'.21 By 1956, the number of 'ozoners' (an alternative label for drive-ins) had exploded to 4,700 on the way to a peak of 6,000 two years later (a number that represented approximately a third of all US theatres).22 The dramatic increase in drive-in theatres coincided with the equally dramatic decrease in indoor theatres during the same period as between 1948 and 1954 the number of hardtop theatres declined by slightly over 3,000 sites, while the number of drive-ins increased by almost 3,000.23

Although from the industry's perspective drive-ins were not adequate replacements for traditional theatres (at least in terms of audience cap-acity),24 they nevertheless gave the ailing industry a much needed life injection. During their peak, in the late 1950s, drive-in theatres accounted for over 25 per cent of theatre rentals, which was certainly not a negligible figure.25 What is important for the purposes of this chapter, however, was that drive-ins became the main exhibition sites for the low-budget independents who quickly realised that the main patrons of such theatres were young people, primarily teenagers. Perceived as places where they could consume alcohol without being caught and where young couples could spend time away from the public eye, drive-in theatres became particularly attractive and cheap leisure options for teenagers.

As the drive-in represented a new trend in exhibition, it is not surprising that it was accompanied by a number of novel exhibition practices. The most important one was the 'teenpic double bill'.26 Unlike the 'classic' double feature presentation of the 1930s and 1940s in which an A film was paired with a B film, the new practice involved the pairing of two films which were similar in budget, duration and, usually, in genre and which targeted specifically the youth audience. The rationale behind this practice was that it allowed the distributor to claim considerably higher rentals from the theatres than for single-film bookings. This was because low-budget independently produced films normally ended up at the bottom half of a double bill, which meant that the distributor received only a flat fee for the film (as opposed to a percentage of the gross for the top billing). By distributing a pair of similar films, however, the distinction between A and B collapsed, while a low-end distribution company could see both its films as the main attractions and therefore collect a healthy box office percentage, if the films were successful. One of the first such pairings included the American International Pictures-distributed The Day the World Ended (Corman, 1956) and The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (Milner, 1956) and proved very profitable for all parties involved.27

The success of the practice made this version of the double bill a staple of drive-in theatres. Soon distributors started experimenting with the scheme, sometimes offering a combination in which the second film was the sequel of the first, while often pairing a current release with an old film (thus recycling their product and exploiting further the lifespan of their films). Other variations of this practice included a double feature where the first film targeted a male audience and the second film a female one, triple or quadruple bills, and even dusk-till-dawn multiple shows.28 Exhibitors were happy to endorse the practice as it meant good business, especially for their concession stands, the profits of which jumped from $15 million in 1949 to $108 million in 1959.29

The emergence of the teen audience, the rise of the exploitation teenpic and the explosion of the drive-in laid the foundations for the continuation of low-budget independent filmmaking. It could then be argued that the B film survived in the 1950s and 1960s despite the end of the classic double bill. It simply metamorphosed into the exploitation film that was designed to cash in on any fad, trend, development or topical news that could deliver a young audience. It is now time to see how industrial and economic conditions shaped the low-end independent filmmaking arena during the 1950s and 1960s and which new players emerged during this period.

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