Theaters



DRIVE-INS AND ART CINEMAS

Shrinking movie attendance from the late 1940s into the 1950s, coupled with the increasing suburbanization of America, led to a new round of theater closings as well as to certain technological innovations intended to underscore the superiority of the big-screen experience over the small, black-and-white image of home television. Preeminent were much-publicized wide-screen processes, which offered images wider and more horizontal than the standard "academy" ratio found on television. Although wide screen had been experimented with at various times in film history, it did not become a key selling point for Hollywood until the mid-1950s. To project wide-screen CinemaScope or VistaVision films, theaters needed to convert projectors as well as install a new screen. (Additional speakers for stereo sound were another option, more likely found in high-end theaters.) This upgrading was costly, but deemed necessary if theaters were to offer an experience that drew customers away from their television sets and back to the movies.

Another, more significant lure for moviegoers in the 1950s and beyond was the drive-in theater, which began in the United States, spread to Canada, and eventually even to Australia. In 1933 the first drive-in, called the Automobile Movie Theatre, was opened by Richard M Hollingshead Jr. in Camden, New Jersey. It accommodated four hundred cars arranged in a terraced and ramped space, allowing for relatively unobstructed sight lines toward the mounted screen. Fewer than three hundred drive-ins had appeared by the end of World War II, but by 1958 the number across the United States hit a peak of almost six thousand. They then constituted almost half of the nation's total screens, with many drive-ins to be found in rural areas or near smaller towns, where setup costs were low and commercial amusements rare. Construction of drive-ins in suburbia accelerated in the late 1950s, driven by the availability of inexpensive land, the shifting demographics of America, and the ubiquity of the automobile.

Drive-ins, sometimes equipped with small playgrounds and picnic areas, offered ease of parking and access, a decidedly homey and informal atmosphere, an opportunity for an inexpensive family night out, and a site that promised relative freedom (and even privacy) for teenagers on dates. Cafeteria-style snack bars became a substantial source of income, offering hot dogs and pizza as well as candy, soft drinks, and popcorn. Live entertainment sometimes served as another drawing card. Even under the best circumstances, the drive-in was not an optimal venue for viewing motion pictures: high-quality screens were expensive to erect; twilight washed out the projected image, which could be proportionally quite small; and sound quality was poor because of portable speakers, though eventually some drive-ins transmitted movie soundtracks through car radios.

While drive-ins initially competed with indoor theaters for mainstream Hollywood movies, even gaining access on occasion to first-run releases, these outdoor venues eventually began to be associated primarily with more marginalized types of programming, often low-budget genre movies well outside the boundaries of standard family fare: teenpix in the 1960s; horror films; softcore sexploitation; and even, during the 1970s, X-rated fare. By the early 1990s, fewer than nine hundred drive-ins (including some multiscreen venues) remained in business, sometimes operating as swap meets and flea markets on the weekends.

Paralleling the rise of the drive-in was the abandonment, demolition, or conversion of a great many urban movie theaters, both pictures palaces and smaller neighborhood venues (which sometimes became churches or markets). Some larger downtown theaters stayed in business by shifting to Spanish-language films or to low-budget fare, like the wave of horror and science fiction films that emerged in the 1950s.

At the other end of the film exhibition business from the drive-in was the art cinema, whose roots were in small, metropolitan-area theaters that opened in the 1920s and 1930s like New York City's International Film Arts Guild and Little Carnegie Playhouse. Such venues targeted a well-to-do clientele by screening otherwise unavailable films that were experimental, foreign-language, or in some other way identifiable as "art" rather than commercial entertainment. By the early 1950s, the art house or, in industry parlance, "sure seater," was gaining popularity, not only in metropolitan centers but also in smaller cities and towns that were home to colleges and universities. Catering to an adult audience and often charging appreciably higher ticket prices than ordinary movie theaters, the typical art house was a newly constructed theater of approximately five hundred seats or a refurbished older venue, intimate and decorated with an eye toward modernist design rather than picture palace exoticism. Coffee was the concession of choice, complementing the films screened, which might include revivals of classics as well as new non-American films. Attendance at such theaters peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, before the widespread diffusion of the home VCR allowed for a different type of art film distribution.



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