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MIDDLETOWN, NY — Several cars streamed into the Fair Oaks Drive-In as it kicked off the second day of opening weekend on Saturday, May 25. Moviegoers headed toward the concession stand in the main building for a quick bite before the two large screens flanking either side of the property lit up the night.
The overcast weather was perfect for viewing, although rain wouldn’t have stopped people from coming, said Kelly Boland, manager of Fair Oaks.
"Drive-ins are not dead."
“You have your diehards that will be like, ‘We’ll go in there if it snows!’ and I have to sit there and say, ‘It’s not heated inside. We have to close down,’” Boland said. Food in hand, customers left the main building in the center of the property and returned to their cars parked throughout the lot.
Built in 1967, with an official opening in 1970, Fair Oaks is now one of two drive-in theaters still showing current releases in Orange County. As one of 321 drive-ins left in the country, according to the National Association of Theater Owners, Boland—with her kids helping at the concession stand—has to manage the ups and downs of running a venue that’s become a rarity with the passing of time. Today, even major theater chains are struggling to compete with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and exhibitors like Fair Oaks have to do double the work just to stay relevant.
That work seems to be paying off. The all-night Fright Fest marathon over Labor Day weekend last year brought in more than 400 people, according to the theater’s operators. A Facebook page for fans of the venue features commenters gleefully awaiting this year’s opening weekend, posting schedules and commending the food.
Theaters like Fair Oaks peaked in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when there were as many as 4,000 running across the country, according to Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian at UCLA’s School of Film, Theater and Television.
“It was a great way to take [the] whole family for low-cost entertainment. Pile them all in your car and take them there, and there were various things for the kids to do, you know, play on the playground jungle gyms in the front of the theaters,” he said.
Total theater attendance nationwide started to dip in the ‘70s, but drive-ins by far took the biggest hit. The rise of home video like VHS, limited comfort and the need for decent weather and dark nights made drive-ins more of a hassle than a go-to family outing, Kuntz explained.
Fair Oaks was able to accommodate 1,000 cars in the ‘90s, but has shrunk to its current size of five acres, with a 300- to 500-car capacity. Of course, if you take a stroll around the grassy plot today, you’ll be weaving among sedans and minivans instead of the classic cars and hatchbacks from the heyday of drive-ins.
Advances in technology can be a double-edged sword for Fair Oaks. After making the switch from 35mm film to digital projection in 2015, its owners installed two new machines in the projection room upstairs—a $45,000 computerized beast for the 50- by 100-foot feature screen and a $30,000 machine for the smaller 20- by 40-foot second-run screen.
“Actually, 35mm is more expensive than these suckers, because all we have to do is wipe them clean, reload a movie and send their drive back out. So we’re saving money,” Boland said. Sound is broadcast to two separate stations for each screen that any car radio can tune into.
However, with the added gear came a few added costs. Air conditioners need to run constantly to prevent the massive projectors from overheating. Boland explained that all these extra upgrades shut out an older generation of drive-in owners who might get tired of the constant changes. The cost of the projectors plus upkeep reaches well over $100,000.
“You don’t make that off of ticket sales because the film companies take such a high percentage,” she said.
Like indoor theaters, most of the ticket sales go back to the major studios whose blockbusters keep people coming until October. Last summer, “Incredibles 2” was Fair Oaks biggest draw.
“This place was packed. Unbelievable how many cars we had in here,” Mark Serale, former manager and projectionist, said.
The theater has managed to make up for the loss in profits through food sales by offering burgers and fries. Boland said concession sales make up over half of Fair Oaks’ profits, a feat other drive-ins could only dream of. That, plus special theme nights, like the fright fest in August, keep caravans of cars coming.
“Drive-ins are not dead,” Serale said. “There may be fewer, but we’re not dead yet.”