How to Start a Drive-In Theater
In the 1950s, more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters dotted the American landscape. While less than 336 drive-ins currently serve up movies viewable from your car, there’s still an audience for this unique viewing experience. You’ll need a combination of careful planning and an investment in today’s projection technology to provide entertainment on an outdoor screen.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, you should look for a closed drive-in theater to remodel. This is one way to keep costs down. Otherwise, setting up a single-screen drive-in theater may cost between $300,000 and $500,000 – and that doesn't include the land. A 500-car theater requires at least 10 to 14 acres, and the land must then be sculpted to ensure that the screen is visible from every parking spot. Look for land that doesn’t have lots of interference from surrounding lights. Otherwise, you’ll need to create some kind of screen around the property to keep the lights from affecting viewing.
Showing old movies requires a 35mm film projector along with a sound processor, large projector lamps, and a platter system to handle the film. But if you want to show new or recently released movies, you must invest in a high-definition digital projection system because new releases are no longer distributed as 35mm films. You also need to buy at least one screen, more if you plan to show different movies at the same time. You also need a transmitter so cars can tune into your specific frequency to hear the movie in their vehicles. To save money, look for used equipment or consider buying a mobile inflatable screen – which you can rent out to businesses and community groups for events on nights when you don't show movies.
A screening tower that’s built high enough to project the movie over the car ramps is a must. Set up a concession stand, since you’ll make most of your nightly take from the goodies you sell, rather than movie tickets. Equip the snack bar with a popcorn machine, a hot dog cooker and coolers for soft drinks, for starters. If space and budget allow, install a grill to make sandwiches to boost profits. Find out what food permits are required by your city or county to run the concession stand.
Obtain movies through a film booker, who works on commission by dealing with movie distributors to get their films into theaters. Plan to pay up to 90 percent of ticket sales to show new movies as soon as they're released. Once films have been out a few weeks, the fee starts to drop and you'll keep more of the ticket price. Showing new releases may be difficult if you're located near an indoor theater, as these venues are usually given the first opportunity to play the movie since they can generate tickets during daylight hours, too. You may find second-run or classic movies more profitable, especially since the latter play into the nostalgic drive-in movie experience.
As with any business, you will need to investigate the state requirements for permits, licenses and taxes. Check with your city and state licensing boards to determine what type of business license and tax paperwork you need to complete before your opening day. Before you show any type of film, you need a public performance license agreement with the studio that produced it – you cannot just play a DVD or you might get hit for copyright infringement. Criterion, MPLC and Swank are among the major film licensing agencies; ask about an umbrella agreement which charges fees based on the size of your movie theater rather than the number of shows.