Visual Crossing Blog

Are we in a drive-in theater renaissance?

Explore the demographic and geospatial data behind this nostalgic trend

There are few businesses as uniquely American or more steeped in mid-twentieth century romantic notions than the drive-in theater. The concept was pioneered by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey and even holds an official US patent from 1932 (https://patents.google.com/patent/US1909537A/en). At their peak in the 1960s there were over 4000 drive-ins in the US with the largest boasting 29 acres and 2500 parking spots. Sadly, now there are only about 300 coast-to-coast.

But there is good news for those who dream wistfully of summer evenings gone by. Drive-ins are mounting a (small) comeback thanks to a combination of preservation-minded groups and collaborations with retro-style restaurateurs such as Johnny Rocket’s. Some estimates have as many as 200 new and relaunched drive-ins coming into services over the new few years.

Using Location Analysis for retail placement in Virginia

One interesting question is where the best place is to locate these drive-ins. In order to explore this question in some geospatial detail, I created the dataset below. I first obtained and geocoded the locations for all existing drive-ins in Virginia. (You can find the source data for Virginia as well as data for your own locale on drive-ins.com here: http://drive-ins.com/theaters.) I then imported the data into Microsoft Excel and set up the Visual Crossing Location Analysis tool. If you are interested in playing with this dataset, you can get a running start by loading the Excel file linked below.

When you load this file, one of the first things that you will notice is that nearly all of the existing theaters are in the western portion of Virginia. Based on land values alone, that placement likely makes a lot of sense. However, those locations are clearly missing out on the huge population in the eastern portion of the state that might enjoy the drive-in experience. Another key question is what type of population is most interested in drive-ins. Are drive-ins most appealing to older folks reliving their younger days? Or might they excel at attracting families with children looking for a unique experience that they can enjoy together? Also, how far are people willing to drive to visit a drive-in? With multiplex theaters seemingly on every corner in the eastern portion of the state, maybe drive in can’t complete unless they offer a closer option. Or maybe people are willing to take a long, leisurely drive to enjoy an experience from yesteryear.

Using Visual Crossing Location Analysis with the sheet below you can make your own assumptions and do your own analysis to plan a possible future for the drive-ins of Virginia. You can be your own Richard Hollingshead and find your ideal balance between land values and ideal demographics. Do you think that you can attract young families? Retirees reliving the past? Lower-income groups looking to pack a car for a low, fixed cost like people used to do in the 1950s? Or maybe your ideal target is high-income couples looking to escape the oppression of the city for an evening?

Who knows, maybe you will get the nostalgia bug and want to open your own drive-in. If not, at least you might get the desire to visit one and see a movie on a really “big screen” under the stars this fall.

Sample data: https://www.visualcrossing.com/installations/location_analysis/Virginia_Drive-ins.zip

Start your free trial of Location Analysis: https://www.visualcrossing.com/location-analysis