The Battle of Little Bighorn for Drive-In Theaters

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It’s the summer of 1876 all over again. Only it’s not Crazy Horse and his Lakota warriors desperately struggling to preserve their way of life against Custer’s 7th Cavalry. This time, it’s the last desperate effort of America’s once proud drive-in theater industry fighting against the regulatory forces that have nearly driven them entirely out of business.

Drive-in theaters have been in a death dive for over 30 years. The few that remain today are usually underfunded, privately owned and struggling to make a profit. The emergence of indoor cinemas was bad enough. Then came the disaster known as Daylight Savings Time, which discouraged potential movie goers who didn’t want to get home at 1:30 am. Then came the increasing regulatory burdens for American youth to get a driver’s license, which further distanced kids from muscle cars. And now we have a world full of electronic devices with miniature movie screens, the combination of which has pushed drive-in theaters to the brink of extinction.

But the government’s wild overreaction to last winter’s virus has given shrewd drive-in theater owners one final chance to have their warriors surround the cavalry, isolate them on Last Stand Hill and perhaps score a historic victory.

With most of the nation still under mandatory house arrest and the economy in shambles, the American public is begging for outdoor recreation and affordable entertainment. Drive-in theaters can provide both. And they can do so without violating the “six foot rule,” “groups of ten,” “anti-social distancing” or whatever the “we-just-made-that-up” term du jour might be.

Almost every indoor movie cinema in North America is closed, so the main competition is temporarily out of the game. This provides drive-in theaters a narrow window of time to make their move. With no new films available, theater operators would be forced to revive any older films they can get their hands on. But given the opportunity, claustrophobic Americans desperate for entertainment would likely flock to drive-in theaters in numbers not seen in two generations. The older films would produce a higher profit margin at the gate while the property’s concession business would still produce the same cash flow.

Of course, there is one small issue that remains… those pesky “mandatory closure” laws. Well, they’re not really laws. The administration and state governors are basically making it up as they go. A poverty-stricken and unemployed public is starting to protest the fact that the US constitution provides no language whatsoever allowing the federal government to shut down a private business.

So while drive-in theaters could abide by all the group size and distance mandates, it’s possible that they would have to violate the dictates of the Great Father in Washington (or their state capital) by operating their own business on their own property.

Time will tell if drive-in theater owners will capitalize on this opportunity to become relevant, first-option entertainment again before the sun sets on their industry for the last time.

I wonder what Crazy Horse and the Lakota would do?

Stephen Cox

Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions

Indianapolis IN

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