“It just seems like a boyfriend/girlfriend thing to do,” said Payton Blom.
He and Sadie Green, seniors at Lakeville North High School, were first in line Friday night at the first showing for the Twin Cities’ newest drive-in movie theater.
The gates at the Champions Outdoor Movie Theater in Elko New Market didn’t open until 7:30 p.m., but the couple arrived an hour early in Blom’s Chevy Silverado. They said their friends had all been talking about the new drive-in, and they expected a big opening-night crowd.
After decades of dwindling numbers, the appearance of a brand-new site for a nostalgic piece of Americana has the Twin Cities joining in a mild comeback across the nation.
The first showing — a double feature of “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Godzilla” — lit up the giant screen beside Elko Speedway, in southern Scott County.
The screen itself is from the Cottage View Drive-In in Cottage Grove, which closed two years ago, giving way to a retail center anchored by a Wal-Mart.
Jeremy Folven, of Farmington, was a customer at the Cottage View and said he’s looking forward to seeing movies again on the same massive screen.
“You can just sit outside like this and enjoy the evening,” said Folven, from his perch in a lawn chair behind his Dodge Dakota with his date, Ashley Tan.
Urban sprawl and changing consumer habits laid waste to drive-in theaters for decades. At their peak, there were more than 4,000 across the country; now, there are only about 350, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
But nationally drive-in theaters are starting a slow comeback, benefiting from resurgent interest in family activities, said April Wright, a Los Angeles filmmaker who has documented the industry’s heyday and struggles. She said that’s initially what fueled their growth after World War II, when soldiers returned to get married, start families and live in auto-oriented suburbs.
The recent popularity of action-filled “comic-book movies” helps, too, Wright said.
“They play well on the big screen, and you don’t have to pay that close attention to them,” she said.
As their numbers have fallen, drive-ins have turned into destination venues for people looking for something different to do, said D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the theater owners’ group.
“People come from a distance,” said Vogel, who sees license plates from Virginia, Delaware and New York at his Baltimore drive-in.
Tim Eiler, who owns and operates the Starlite 5 in Litchfield, said he draws customers from towns like Buffalo and St. Cloud, each about 40 miles away, and even Minneapolis, about 65 miles away.
His most popular films are ones that appeal to families, such as “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and comedies for the college crowd.
Since announcing plans for the drive-in in February, Tom Ryan, owner of the Elko racetrack, has heard from a throng of would-be customers. Older folks have told him they’re eager to relive happy nights they spent years ago watching movies under the stars. Younger people have said they want to have an experience they’ve never had before.
“I can only hope that all this enthusiasm turns into actual business for us,” he said. “The reason why we’re one of only a few drive-ins in the state is because they couldn’t stay in business for economic reasons.”
A long decline
The Twin Cities once had more than three dozen drive-in theaters. But after the Cottage View closed, the Vali-Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo became the lone survivor in the metro area.
Four others remain outstate: the one in Litchfield, the Long in Long Prairie, the Verne in Luverne and the Sky-Vu in Warren.
The toughest years were the 1980s, when developers bought and demolished drive-ins to make way for big-box stores and retail centers, many of which housed a growing number of movie multiplexes. Drive-in operators whose children weren’t interested in carrying on the family business cashed in on rising property values.
Recent challenges include the expense of converting to digital projection as the film industry makes it all but impossible for theaters with old projectors to operate. Digital projectors can cost $70,000 to $80,000.
But the industry group says the decline in drive-ins has become less steep and a handful open each year.
Eiler said he was surprised when he learned of plans for the theater at the Elko Speedway.
“The season in Minnesota is so short,” he said. “But with the racetrack already there, they won’t be depending on the drive-in all by itself, so it might work.”
The new drive-in holds about 600 cars. Ryan had hoped to be open by Memorial Day, but installing the 116-by-46 screen took longer than expected because of necessary upgrades in its support system, he said.
Ryan won’t disclose how much he’s spent installing the screen, constructing a projector building and getting a digital projector. But he said it’s more than he planned.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” he said. “I got a really good deal on the screen, but that was the beginning and end of my really good deals.”
Ryan plans to show movies seven nights a week through Labor Day, with a double feature every night except Saturday, when a single film will run after the last race. He is working with a film buyer and hopes to have a new lineup of movies each week.