There was enough magic for a revival of this outdoor family entertainment classic, but Hollywood has Springville insurance executive Brian Skinner facing a new crisis in the final reel.
Brian Skinner is all set for the show at his Argo Drive-In theatre, with a feature film-size cup of popcorn, a good size crowd of patrons and a movie unfolding on the really big screen.
Brian Skinner is the deliverer of dreams. He can take people around the globe and transport them to other worlds. He can make people laugh and cry and cheer, sometimes within a matter of minutes. He brings stories flickering to life, presenting tales of wonder that are so big they cannot be contained indoors.
Skinner does all this as the owner and operator of two drive-in theaters — one in Argo and one in Harpersville. They are his personal time machines to an era before DVRs, Pay Per View and IMAX Theaters. Throwbacks to a period when the car was king and movies were magical and drive-ins allowed people to enjoy both at the same time.
“They’re kind of like my own field of dreams,” Skinner says of the drive-ins. “One of my grandfathers worked (as a projectionist) in the ’40s. My dad always talked about sitting in the booth with him when he was a little boy. The movie industry has just always intrigued me.”
It has been estimated that there were more than 5,000 drive-in theaters in the United States in the 1950s. According to the website driveintheater.com, the state of Alabama had nearly 100 drive-ins at that time. But the fad faded in the ensuing decades, and by 1987 there were only six drive-ins operating in the state.
Drive-ins began to enjoy a bit of a nostalgic resurgence in the 1990s, and Skinner — who also owns the Crawford Skinner Agency insurance company in Springville — became intrigued by the idea of building one. So he contacted several drive-in owners and gathered information from them about such topics as how much land is needed and how big the screens should be.
Then in 1998, Skinner obtained a bank loan, bought a small patch of land in Argo and spent three months overseeing construction of the Argo Drive-In. The theater opened in late May with a showing of the blockbuster “Titanic.” Skinner had to hope that the movie would not end up being an apt metaphor for his new business venture.
“It was about a $250,000 investment, but I thought it would work,” Skinner says. “One of the bank managers who gave me the loan said, ‘Well, if nothing else, you’ll have the largest big-screen TV.’”
Instead, Skinner had a moneymaker on his hands. He says the Argo Drive-In “was a roaring success” from the beginning, and he was able to make back his investment within seven years. Once he did, he noticed that the flea market in Harpersville, off U.S. Highway 280, had closed and the land was for sale. So Skinner decided to build a second theater, and the Harpersville Drive-In opened in 2006.
Drive-ins have appeal beyond mere nostalgia, says Skinner, noting that drive-ins offer a community feel, especially for a group event, such as a birthday party or church outing, as opposed to everybody filing into a darkened indoor theater and sitting silently in a row.
“People just like the experience,” Skinner says. “It’s like going to the park or any outdoor event. It’s very social. Your kids can get out and throw the baseball or the Frisbee before the movie starts. It’s just a good family time. It’s a different entertainment experience than going to see a movie indoors.”
Drive-ins also offer benefits for specific groups of people — people with serious mobility problems or families with newborns. Both often prefer watching a movie in the comfort and privacy of their vehicle.
“I had no idea that was going to be such a big part of this,” Skinner says. “I have a lot of handicapped people who come to every movie in their handicap-accessible van, because it’s such a
burden for them to get out of their vehicle and go to an indoor theater, especially people with handicapped children. It can be the first outing after having a new baby, or the first time out since having knee surgery. It’s just easier for people like that to stay in their car.”
According to data from the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, there are 357 drive-ins operating throughout the U.S., with 10 in Alabama. Look for the big screens at 411 Drive-In in Centre, Blue Moon Drive-In in Guin, Cinemagic in Athens, Continental Drive-In in Wicksburg, Henagar Drive-In in Henagar, King Drive-In in Russellville, Sand Mountain Twin Drive-In in Boaz and Star-Lite Drive-In in Anniston. Only 10 states have more drive-ins than Alabama, led by Pennsylvania, with 30.
Unfortunately for Skinner and people who enjoy drive-ins, this might not be a story with a happy ending. A few years ago, the major movie studios began requiring drive-ins to operate like any other theater and charge admission per person rather than per carload, which had long been the standard practice. Skinner used to charge $10 per carload, with a special $5 price for the Sunday matinee. Now he charges $5 per adult and $2 per child.
“That has really hurt our business tremendously,” Skinner says, and it’s been much harder to recoup his $500,000 investment into the Harpersville Drive-In as quickly as he did with the Argo Drive-In.
Drive-ins likely are about to face another financial blow, as the movie world continues to convert from old-fashioned film prints to digital. Speculation is heavy that movie companies might soon quit
offering film prints entirely, and Skinner says the cost for converting to digital would be approximately $80,000 per screen.
“You have such a far distance from the projector to the screen, it takes an incredible piece of equipment,” Skinner says. “The math just doesn’t work out (for converting to digital).”
So while Skinner is unsure how long he will remain in the drive-in business, he says for now he plans to continue showing movies at least every Friday and Saturday night throughout the spring and summer.
“It’s still paying for itself right now. I’m not losing money,” Skinner says. “It just gives me a lot of pleasure to provide inexpensive wholesome entertainment for families. That’s why I do it.”
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.