The story of the Cottage View Drive-In is like a serial mystery, each year ending in a cliffhanger: Will it be back?

Last weekend, the theater closed out its 2011 season with a double bill featuring America's No. 1 film, Dolphin Tale, and with all signs pointing to family flicks flickering again next year at the Cottage Grove landmark.

The year-to-year suspense stems from landowner Gerry Herringer's desire to sell the property for development. There has been interest, "hot and cold," in recent years, Herringer said last week, "but as I speak to you now, no one's signed a purchase agreement, let's put it that way."

Thus, one can expect a behind-the-scenes replay of a March 1 ritual that has Herringer asking Steve Mann, of the Mann Theatres chain, if he'd like to go ahead with another drive-in season. There have been 45 so far.

The answer, Mann said last week, would be "yes."

The drive-in's enduring appeal has been documented in a recent nine-minute video production that won first-place honors last month at a National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors conference in San Francisco.

Justin Atkinson, a producer for the South Washington County Telecommunications Commission who shot, edited and narrated the documentary, said that he first had the idea for the video in 2007 when he joined the commission amid serious talk that the drive-in might be closing.

"I didn't want it to be too late," he said.

The number of drive-in theaters in the United States has tumbled from a high of 4,063 in 1958 to 374 in 2010, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. In the Twin Cities area, only the Cottage View and the Vali-Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo remain.

Mann said that people outside the industry might think existing drive-ins are struggling, "but that's not true at all. Our drive-in does very well, and so does the Vali-Hi."

This season, the theater chain invested in new equipment to amplify the sound playing through car speakers at the Cottage View. Mann said he would like to make other improvements, too, but that such moves make little sense when there is a chance each year that the screen will go dark.

Said Herringer, "That day will come. It has to come." Suburban land is "too dear to be used for that purpose," he said.

Budding filmmaker

Atkinson, 29, grew up in Woodbury. His life changed, he said, when his mother, Jenifer Cloutier, took him to the Cottage View to see Tim Burton's first Batman film. It was June 23, 1989, on opening night, and the line to the drive-in snaked a half-mile back to the Hwy. 61 entrance ramp, said Atkinson, who was 7 at the time.

"Seeing that movie in that setting -- a unique world created against a night sky -- changed my whole perception of the movies," he recalled last week. "It made me realize I wanted to do the same thing: tell stories in a visual medium. And it all began at the drive-in."

An old-school trailer to the documentary might say: A tale of survival under starlit summer skies. A love story as only Justin Atkinson, one of the video world's brightest new talents, could tell it. The Cottage View Drive-In. Playing now at The documentary is available for viewing on the website's archive of select SWC-TV programming.

The drive-in experience as captured by Atkinson is one of communal fun. Kids kick a soccer ball. A cute dog romps. There are pictures from the wedding of managers Barb and Ed Stofferahn, who got married at the Cottage View.

Atkinson said he set out to answer such questions as: "What does this place ultimately mean? Why is it such a big part of my life -- and the life of Cottage Grove?"

The answer, he said, is that "it's not about the movies, it's about the memories."

Atkinson returned to the Cottage View many times this summer to research a script for what he hopes will be his first feature film, "Bobby's Unrequited," a modern love story set at a drive-in. He's resigned to the likely loss someday of the Cottage View. And he's seemingly OK with it, too.

"It has served its function for anyone who has shared a night under the stars," Atkinson said.

And for those who've yet to make it to the drive-in, say hello next year to the Stofferahns. They plan to be back, too.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036