Peter Trapp can still picture the last time the drive-in was full. It was 2006, the blockbuster summer of Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. They filled all 400 spaces and had to turn people away. To keep up with demand, they hired five extra employees. “Then the recession hit, or something,” he says, his voice trailing off.
Rust streaks the 90-foot-long steel movie screen at the back of the lot. Trapp ambles past rows of old iron speaker posts toward the projection booth in the middle of the field, telling stories with a toothy grin behind a gray walrus mustache. The shed, a low-slung cinder-block bunker, hasn’t changed much since the mid-1960s, when Trapp was a teenager from New Jersey coming to summer camp in Vermont. “On Saturday nights they’d throw us in the back of the sawdust truck and drop us off in Fairlee at the drive-in,” he says. “Girls, sleeping bags, under the stars—I mean, how much closer to heaven could you get?”
Back then, the drive-in showed 35 mm movies through the theater’s original twin carbon-arc projectors. The projectionist had to preload the film onto two huge reels; a mechanical bell alerted him when it was time to switch from one projector to the other. Those were the same projectors in the booth nearly four decades later, in 2003, when Peter and his wife, Erika, bought the drive-in and tiny, adjacent motel. Their three boys, Tucker, PJ, and Cooper, were young at the time. “I remembered how much fun I’d had at the drive-in,” Peter says. “When I read in the paper that it was for sale, I thought it could be something the boys might like to be involved with as they got older.” He managed a 300-acre ranch on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River, and this felt like a good fit next to the farm work. It sounded like an adventure.
There was a time when drive-in movie theaters were synonymous with summer, when the smells of buttered popcorn and grilled hamburgers filled the warm night air and the stars on the big screen shone brightly beneath the starlight.
Riding the wave of the post-war baby boom, outdoor movie screens flickered from Maine to California—4,063 of them by 1958—most at the edges of suburbia, near expanding populations where land was cheap. They offered convenience and family value and a snack-bar menu, a chance to smoke cigarettes or talk or make out in privacy. More than anything else, they catered to America’s love affair with the car.
There was another kind of drive-in—the rural, cow-field variety—that was pastoral in nature, and the theater in Fairlee was one of those. Author W.D. Wetherell, a regular there, once wrote that he saw in the place a living reminder “of a time when a film coming to a small New England town was a big event, the viewing of it a truly communal experience.”
But the world had changed since the 1950s. Against a relentless tide of cultural forces, including a fatal rise in land values, drive-ins nearly disappeared from the American landscape. According to the United States Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, only 393 remain. Summers still came, of course, but the coming of a film was no longer a big event. And so Peter Trapp struggled with a question: Was there still a place for a drive-in theater in a 1,000-person town in Vermont?
Money problems in the theater business aren’t unique to drive-ins.
Thanks in large part to the rise of ultraconvenient streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, theater attendance has been declining for years. In 2014, the number of people going to the movies plummeted to a 20-year low. There’s increasing chatter that theaters are becoming obsolete, and in turn many are attempting to reinvent themselves by making the movie-watching experience more luxurious. This is partly to lure customers back, but it also provides justification for raising ticket prices to compensate for lower attendance.
Bill Dever, managing director of USA Drive-Ins, believes this actually puts drive-ins in a unique position to reclaim their role as important players in the business. “You have all the major chains putting in very expensive chairs and bringing in high-priced chicken fingers, but that’s precluding a large amount of families,” he says. “We think that’s wrong, because at the end of the day movies have always been a medium for the common man. And because of the price and the overhead issue, drive-ins are more accessible to more people.”
While the number of drive-ins has dwindled, there is hope—USA Drive-Ins plans to open 200 theaters within five years. “Even when obsolescence threatens an industry, some players may be able to thrive while continuing to focus on the older way of doing things,” says Phyllis Ezop, president of the business strategy consulting firm Ezop and Associates. “The ones who continue to thrive generally have some particular strengths that other players in the industry lack.”
Accessibility is one strength, but so are flexibility and customization, says Ryan Smith, co-owner of Stars and Stripes, which now operates two drive-ins in Texas. “You can have as private of an experience as you want—sitting inside your car, either with your newborn child or with a date—or set up a tailgate by backing up your SUV to the screen and having the row that you’re on be like a block party for the evening.”
The need for flexibility has given rise to the “guerilla,” or pop-up, drive-in movement. Using inexpensive LCD projectors, along with micro radio transmitters, a pop-up drive-in can take over a parking area or vacant lot for an evening, and the whole setup can be packed up in minutes. They’ve appeared across the country (and in Europe), in abandoned warehouses and under highway overpasses.
Dever fell in love with the pop-up concept long before getting into the drive-in game. He was visiting a small Canadian town one Saturday night when the community decided to project Star Wars onto the side of a grain elevator. In the midst of a battle sequence, a train passed by and the chaotic scene was momentarily projected onto the rumbling grain cars. “For me, that was such an ethereal experience,” Dever says. “It really heightened the idea of what moviegoing is all about.”
USA Drive-Ins is embracing the pop-up movement by partnering with outlet malls, vineyards, breweries—any mass-market operation with an accessible space—but they’re looking to go a step further. They’re currently working with communities in rural Louisiana whose economies have been decimated by big-box stores. The goal is to establish permanent moviegoing experiences that will revitalize vacant downtown spaces.
Even still, a daunting obstacle remains for any drive-in hoping to flourish in this evolving moviegoing ecosystem: the industry’s transition from film to digital.
One of the first things the Trapps did after buying the Fairlee drive-in was upgrade the projector. They paid $40,000 for a refurbished, 20-year-old Simplex unit with a xenon-bulb lamp house, set up a platter system to unspool and respool the 35 mm films, and shoved the old carbon-arc projectors into a corner of the booth.
But Trapp’s booking agent in Massachusetts began warning the family that getting decent films would become harder as the industry phased out 35 mm film production. In January 2014, Paramount Pictures became the first big studio to stop distributing major movies on 35 mm. The move came sooner than industry insiders had anticipated, and it instantly accelerated the time frame for other studios to follow suit. Some columnists predicted that all distribution would become digital within a year. It was only a matter of time before movies wouldn’t be available in Fairlee at all—unless Trapp could come up with a digital projection system to the tune of more than $80,000. “With the business over the past few years being half of what it used to be and with it being seasonal and so dependent on the weather,” Trapp says, “there’s no way we could get a bank loan for that kind of money.”
Peter, Erika, and the boys did what many farm families do when faced with a serious challenge: They gathered around the dining-room table one night and talked over their options. They started this venture because Peter had never forgotten the happy experience of coming here when he was a kid. His family had grown to love the whole experience, working alongside each other: handling tickets, parking cars, running the snack shack. Peter liked to joke that every night during the season it felt like they were on a mini vacation together. (“I say to Erika, ‘How many husbands take their wives every weekend to Vermont and go to the drive-in?’”) But he wanted his kids to make the decision. This was their future. The family talked for a long time, and PJ, Tucker, and Cooper finally decided: Let’s do whatever it takes to keep the theater open, and reach out to the community for help.
They put a request on their website. Cooper handed out flyers to the cars coming in, PJ hung posters. They set out a donation bucket at the snack shack. They held two benefit concerts, a benefit auction, sold T-shirts. Money trickled in. They signed up for Honda’s national “Project Drive-In” initiative and urged fans to vote for Fairlee to be one of the five theaters to which Honda would donate new digital projectors.
Of course, Fairlee was hardly alone staring at this bullet; most of the remaining U.S. drive-ins faced the same uncertain transition and the same cost. “It’s expensive, and it’s a major commitment,” says Stars and Stripes’ Smith, whose drive-in in Lubbock, Texas, was the first multiscreen to go all digital, “but it’s just what we needed to do.”
The Honda voting effort didn’t pan out, and the Trapps were $55,000 short. Knowing there would likely be a waiting list to get digital projectors installed for the 2014 summer season, Peter gambled and ordered the projector, using the money they had raised as a down payment. The family hastily put together a 30-day, Web-based effort to finance the rest through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The site uses an all-or-nothing model: If pledged donations didn’t reach the $55,000 goal, they would be zeroed out, and the theater would get nothing.
Through the bitterly cold month of February, the family tended to the farm and motel and anxiously watched the computer. “In retrospect,” Trapp says, “probably not the best time to ask for money—when people are thinking about their heating bills, not about going to the movies.” The campaign failed. Still, a new digital projector, with its heavy debt and promise of salvation, was on its way.
Not everyone has suffered because of the digital change. Rather than featuring new releases, pop-up theaters show classic and niche films for a target audience, meaning they don’t have to invest in expensive new technology. Meanwhile, USA Drive-Ins will soon launch its sister effort, Cinema Link, which will offer an expansive library of alternative content so that drive-ins can keep a greater percentage of box-office sales. (Currently, theaters pay studios the majority of their revenue for new releases.)
And while technological disruptions presented potentially catastrophic problems for the Trapps in Vermont, it also allowed them to publicize and market their theater in new ways. The family launched a second Kickstarter campaign and set a more attainable goal, close to $30,000. Their plea went out over Twitter and Facebook. If they could raise that much, they could add it to the $22,000 down payment and close the financing gap to a manageable size. It’s a curious thing, an outdated business asking for donations to make its capital investments. Why would people donate? Why would anyone care?
The family had reason to be hopeful. Fairlee is an unusual place for a drive-in theater—Vermont has a reputation for welcoming dreamers and romantics and contrarians. Farmers are still a part of the drive-in’s clientele, but so are writers, loggers, college
professors, students, truckers, vacationing families making annual visits, kids from summer camps on Lake Fairlee and Lake Morey, parents who had come here as children now with children of their own.
And there’s something harder to identify, something having to do with that sense of community W.D. Wetherell wrote about. Peter Trapp feels it every time someone thanks him at the post office or the general store; he senses it in the gratefulness he hears from moviegoers, in the stories that remind them of their history, that connect them in this place.
Thus, while drive-ins aren’t resting on nostalgia, they are tapping into something that’s increasingly elusive in a world dominated by personal devices. “I think that people crave collective experiences: People like being with their families, their neighbors, their town and community,” Dever says. “I don’t think that people really relish watching movies on a phone. They want to watch it together.”
Plus, he says, there’s a need for drive-ins to help reintroduce the country to its love affair with film. “Movies are, for better or worse, the key export that America has given to the world.”
Trapp has been running the theater for barely 10 years, but he feels he’s a part of something larger that stretches back more than half a century, to the original owner, Reginald Drowns, who stopped traveling around Vermont with a projector and a popcorn machine to bring his road show home for good. Drowns built the Holiday Park Drive-In in 1950, and renamed it the Hi Way 5 Motel and Drive-In when he added six motel units 10 years later. It was the first of its kind in the country. Drowns had strict ideas about the business. He made sure his movies arrived by Thursday each week so he could personally preview them before showing them to the public on the weekend. He installed a button on the wall next to one of the carbon-arc projectors, which he pushed to kill the sound every time a cuss word was coming. He spliced out racy scenes. His wife, Terri, ran the motel in a similar vein. She wouldn’t rent rooms to couples who didn’t look married, or to people who drank beer, which to her included all golfers, hunters, and Dartmouth students.
The theater was tucked between a dairy farm and the field where the cows were once pastured. The experience of watching films here included the inconvenience of being interrupted by cows wandering through the parking lot on their way back to the barn. Eventually, the farmer put up a 6-foot-high metal fence around the drive-in parking area. Viewers haven’t been bothered by cows since, though they continue to put up with the high-pitched calls of frogs and crickets. On cool nights late in the season, the river valley fog can turn the screen gauzy or get so thick that viewers can’t see the screen at all. The Trapps show films as scheduled, no matter the weather. “We can’t afford to get a reputation of not staying open when the weather turns sour,” says Peter. He has kept a movie running for a single car.
He remembers one couple who came to a show on a rainy night. To keep the water off the windshield, they extended a sheet of plywood over the cab of their pickup, counter-balancing the weight by perching a tire on top of it. “Those people were professional,” Trapp says.
People still talk about the reopening weekend of 1987. A couple from Connecticut named Ray and Elaine Herb took a chance on reviving the motel and drive-in, which had fallen into neglect after being shuttered for a few years. The new owners showed Good Morning, Vietnam that weekend to a big, boisterous crowd. The picture intermittently dimmed and brightened, and the second reel ran completely the wrong way. “I nearly died,” Elaine told a local writer. “There was a helicopter flying upside down and backwards. It turned out the print hadn’t been rewound, and the leader was spliced on upside-down. The projectionist stopped the show, and it took a while to fix. One fellow got out of his van and played the trumpet!”
The attraction of the drive-in has changed over time. These
old cow-field setups had been synonymous with summer in the beginning, when there was little else going on in town. They remained a part of summer when drive-ins elsewhere, sitting on more expensive land, shut down in droves. They became a symbol.
Peter says he doesn’t really feel like the owner of the Fairlee. “Closing this place would be like closing Mount Rushmore. It belongs to too many people.”
Still, someone must take up the mantle for the place to succeed. “I think drive-ins are the last batch of true American cinematic enterprise,” Dever says. “You can’t hide the weak films. If the concessions are bad, they’re bad. You rise and fall on the strength and character of the person who is operating the drive-in.”
The new projector finally arrived that spring. Trapp quickly learned that the days of receiving movies on eight or nine loaded reels weighing 55-plus pounds were long gone. New movies came on a petite hard drive, in a package smaller than a lunchbox.
A few computer glitches, some tense phone calls, and a five-hour service call later, it was ready to go. Cars trickled in and parked around the field, waiting. Night fell. Inside the booth, Trapp pulled a long orange string in front of the projector, lifting up a rusted metal curtain to reveal the hole in the cinder-block wall. He tied the string to an old pipe, inserted the hard drive, and swiveled out a large computer screen. “Welcome to the Starship Enterprise,” he said. Outside on the big screen, the dark scenes were crisp. The bright scenes glowed. An explosion illuminated the entire parking lot. The sound, to Trapp’s ear, was much improved.
By Memorial Day weekend, the Kickstarter campaign sat nearly $10,000 shy of its goal with a week to go. A wet forecast kept the turnout low for Saturday’s double feature, though the air stayed dry and pleasantly warm. By 8 o’clock, a couple dozen cars were scattered around the lot. More crept along the gravel drive and pulled up to the ticket booth, where Cooper was handling the money. Cash only. A driver said he only had plastic, but Cooper let him through and asked him to pay at the snack shack, where PJ, Tucker, and Erika took orders and served up fries, popcorn with Cabot butter, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and burgers fresh from their farm. George Strait’s “Carrying Your Love With Me” warbled out of a nearby speaker.
The donations poured in: $5, $100, $1,000, from Vermont and New Hampshire, from New Jersey, from California. The following Saturday, on the last day of the campaign, Trapp grabbed some fries from the snack shack and walked quickly to the motel to check on something in the office. While there, he glanced at the screen of his computer and saw a blinking notice. They’d done it. On account of 606 donations, a total of $38,075 raised, they officially met their goal.
Not all of the new costs were covered yet, but enough. Sometime after midnight, after the last of the bobbing taillights and the couples and the buddies and the families and the sleeping kids in pajamas made their way back out the gravel drive onto Route 5 and dispersed into the black night, the clouds broke up and scattered. The stars, finally, came out.
Originally published August 2015
Jim Collins is the author of The Last Best League, about the Cape Cod Baseball League. He lives in Orange, New Hampshire, and Seattle.
Photography by Trevor Paulhus