On Oscar night, a look back at the past, present and uncertain future of going to the movies

Drive-Ins were once all the rage. It was a great way to watch a double feature with your family, friends or sweetheart. Eventually the walk-in theater took over as the movie venue of choice and now streaming and other online options are the big dog on the block of movie distribution, Location and date unknown | Photo by iStock/Getty Images, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — For more than a century, people have been going to the movies to laugh, cry and be amazed at how the world was changing under their feet. The experience of the movies will be celebrated by the Oscars Sunday night.

Although walk-in theaters are older – not by much – drive-in theaters also once dotted the landscape of rural America. From coast to coast, people could see top-run movies on a larger-than-life silver screen in the comfort of their car. For about $2, a family of four could enjoy the moviegoing experience.

In its early days, popcorn in movie theaters was rarely offered. At that time, it had to be trucked in precooked because of running the risk of starting a grease fire, a hazard that plagued drive-ins for decades.

Utah’s oldest drive-in, located in Vernal and originally known as the Starlight, opened on April 21, 1950, with a capacity for 300 cars.

It originally had a wooden screen that was destroyed by fire on April 17, 1957. After the fire, new ownership constructed a steel-framed screen and renamed the venue the Sunset Drive-In. It reopened on Aug. 16, 1957, with a capacity of 400 cars.

Sunset Drive-In prior to a grease fire from the theater’s deep-fat fryers that destroyed the concession stand in 2013, eventually leading to the drive-in closing forever. Vernal, Utah, date unspecified | Photo by Sunset Drive-In Cinema Treasures Common Creative License, St. George News

But almost six decades later, fire came back to haunt the Sunset.

On July 5, 2013, a deep-fat fire destroyed the concession building. This closed the theater permanently.

While popcorn, hot dogs and colas would go on to become a big concession stand moneymaker, many families often opted for the cheaper solution of packing their own refreshments.

As a way to trim even more money from the cost of attendance – or as a prank to get one over on the drive-in – it wasn’t uncommon to smuggle friends and family into the drive-in hunkered down in the trunk of their car.

Dixie Auto-Vu / Starlite Drive-In – St. George

Starlite Drive-In circa mid 1940s – 50s. St. George, Utah, date undefined | Photo courtesy of Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

When the Dixie Auto-Vu opened in 1949 on the outskirts of St. George, the only neighbors were a smattering of service stations, a handful of other businesses, desert critters, sagebrush and travelers on their way to somewhere else.

Built by T. Gay Myers and Byron Thornton for a cost of $32,000, the Dixie Auto-Vu had its soft opening on Aug. 6, 1949, with a double feature starring Richard Halliburton in “India Speaks” and Don ‘Red’ Barry in “Ringside.”

The drive-in was located at 1000 W. Highway 91 – now Sunset Boulevard. The one-screen theater had enough room for not much more than 200 cars.

Ivan Hunt was listed as its manager in a 1950 news article with owner Byron Thornton leasing the drive-in to United Intermountain Theaters, which “reopened” on April 12, 1951, with “Destination Moon.”

Merv and Mary Reber purchased the drive-in 1952, renaming it the Starlite in 1960.

Operated as the Wadsworth Theatre from pre-1930 until the late-1940’s. It then became the Dixie Theatre until after 1999. Last known as the Main Street Theatre and Ballroom by 2005, the auditorium was in use as a warehouse for storage and the basement a ballroom. St George, Utah, date undefined | Photo courtesy of Cinema Treasures contributed by Bryan Krefft Creative Common License, St. George News

The Rebers also owned the walk-in downtown Gaiety Theater, later renamed the Electric Theater, and the Dixie Theater on Main Street.

The Starlite was last operated by Westates Theaters and closed after the 1989 season. It was eventually demolished to make way for commercial development that included the Megaplex Theaters at Sunset.

“To me, it was a great loss to have the Starlite gone,” said Loren Webb, a lifelong St. George resident and author of ‘Southern Utah Memories.’ “It was so much fun going to that drive-in.”

In the early 1960s, drive-ins were all the rage, and developers who wanted to exploit the popularity of building an outdoor venue had the dream that if they built it, people will come. And for a while they did.

“I remember as a kid taking my dad’s one-ton Chevrolet cattle truck with the side racks down and driving out to the Starlite,” Webb said. “We parked the truck facing away from the drive-in so the bed would be facing the screen. It was so cool just sitting there watching the movie. There was just something about a movie under the stars on a giant screen. It was just fun. It really was a unique thing to do.”

As an industry, the drive-in’s peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with more than 4,100 drive-ins spread across the United States by 1958.

But, that slice of Americana is long gone.

Although once a popular family outing and a place for young lovers to escape the prying of their parents by the late 60s attendance began to decline. The drive-in was truly the last of a dying breed showing films alfresco.

According to Statista in 1995, there were 593 drive-ins scattered throughout the country. By 2020, that number had dwindled to 321.

Even at the height of its popularity, Utah was never a large drive-in theater state. At its peak, it had about 30 drive-in theaters. Most are gone and now less than a handful are still operating primarily in the Salt Lake City area.

Entrance to the abandoned Starlite Drive-In. The theater would experience its ups and downs since its opening in 1949 but was eventually demolished sometime after 1989. St. George, Utah, date undefined. | Photo courtesy of Washington County Historical Society, St. George News

“I’m glad the Starlite was there for people like myself to enjoy and escape the realities of the world at least for a few hours and see what life was like elsewhere,” Webb said. “We lived vicariously through the movies. We learned about other cultures and what life was like other than what was happening in isolated Southern Utah. It was really cool going to the movies.”

A brief history of drive-in and walk-in movie theaters

Though there were drive-ins as early as the 1910s, the first patented drive-in was opened on June 6, 1933, by Richard Hollingshead in New Jersey.

It had spaces for 400 vehicles and offered a solution for people unable to comfortably fit into the smaller, cramped traditional walk-in movie theater.

Appealing to families, Hollingshead advertised his drive-in as a place where “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”

Before drive-in moviegoers had the luxury of dialing in the film’s audio feed on their FM radio, they stretched speakers from audio stands and hung them on their car’s windows. Many moviegoers forgot they were there and drove away causing damage to the speakers and the windows. Location undefined, circa 1950s | Photo by iStock/Getty Images, St. George News

Two decades later – during the 1950s and ‘60s – there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters throughout the U.S. with many located in rural areas like St. George.

But, as with everything else change was inevitable. Walk-in movie theaters soon attracted the lion’s share of box office attendance. But within a generation, the theater experience would undergo a technological revolution that may have changed the industry forever.

The drive-in’s older cousin – the walk-in theater – has experienced a similar storied past and subsequent demise in attendance.

The first public movie theater in the United States opened in Pittsburgh on June 19, 1905: the Nickelodeon – a name that combined the cost of admission, a nickel, with “odeon,” the ancient Greek word for theater.

In 1930, attendance to movie theaters reached 90 million per week and continued growing into the mid-1940s with more than 65% of the population going to the movies weekly. For every five people you knew, three of them went to the movies.

But by the early 1960s, people’s attraction to the movie house began to fade.

According to Business Insider, beginning in 1964, 10% of the U.S. population said they went to the movies at least once a week.

Today, less than 15% of people visit theaters — not only because of COVID-19 restrictions but because there are more forms of similar entertainment available at home.

Video On-Demand, subscription-based platforms such as Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, combined with streaming options and those who have an in-home movie theater – the result, experts say has exacerbated the continued slide in theater attendance.

A 2019 survey found that 14% of U.S. adults visited a movie theater once or more each month with 46% responding that they went to the cinema once a year or less.

A changing industry learning to adapt in the 21st Century

With endless streaming options, boutique television channels breaking away from the traditional cable company’s inflexible tiered system and fears of COVID-19 exposure, experts say the movie industry is going through a cataclysmic shift and a drop in walk-in theater attendance.

But experts say the pandemic is not the primary driver of dwindling attendance numbers.

Adam Mast and John Pugh, co-founders of the Film and Media Alliance of Southern Utah, said the movie industry was experiencing changes even before COVID-19; however, the pandemic accelerated the pace of change in how movie studios deliver their product.

Once a booming business, the movie-going experience is being swallowed up by online streaming options. Location and date undefined | Photo by Pixabay, St. George News

“Is the pandemic hurting the other side of things, absolutely,” Pugh said. “What is happening is that streaming takes you out of the theatrical setting. It literately changes what films were meant to do, giving you a larger-than-life experience.”

Pugh added that it’s a trick being played on theater owners and patrons by the movie studios that streaming is the new normal.

“I don’t think this is right,” he said. “I think going to the movies and the theatrical experience should stay alive.”

Is it easier to showcase independent films and major releases through a digital stream, yes Pugh said, but it’s “critical” to keep the in-person spirit alive.

“When you get to experience a film in a live setting, with other people sharing the art that is presented, it’s a completely different thing than a virtual experience at home,” he said. “Nothing comes close to a film shown the same day of release on the silver screen instead of watching it weeks later on an iPhone.”

Bob Chapek, Disney CEO unveils Star Wars-themed land for the company’s theme parks at D23 Expo 2017. | Photo courtesy of Disney, St. George News

Disney CEO Bob Chapek, speaking at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference, reported this year and publicized in Variety laid out the changing business reality.

“I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before,” Chapek said. “Particularly since now, they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. So I’m not sure there’s going back, but we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.”

The revenues from theatrical runs still generate revenue, but consumers want a choice when a movie is released, Chapek added. “Watching a movie at home or watching it in theaters provides options.”

Some research indicates that the movie industry is evolving in spite of COVID-19, but in reality, it was never designed to benefit consumers despite their desires. It was designed to benefit movie production houses since the early days of silent films, Chapek said.

“Obviously, theaters aren’t going to be 100% back,” Chapek added. “But it’s nice to know that we’ve got the ability for people who want to enjoy (movies) in their home — because they don’t quite feel confident in going to a … theater. What will this look like in the future? Well, we’re going to gain a lot of experience (finding out what the) data points (mean),” he said.

Disney’s streaming success is growing day by day.

Disney+, which was launched in November 2019, notched 95 million subscribers and by the end of 2020 and that number was still growing.

If each consumer pays a fee of $70 a year, which generates about $6.6 billion in revenues for Disney,  the extra fees for the special virtual movie release then adds on to profits.

At its height in 2002, 1.58 billion movie tickets were sold. By 2019,  this number had dropped to 1.23 billion and by 2020 only 224 million people bought movie tickets, according to wolfstreet.com

The movie theater’s slow demise

Gene Harvey – a long-time theater operator with 50 years in the industry – said in the early 2000s, movie theaters began making the costly transition from 35mm film to digital.

Movie studios tried to accommodate the theaters by converting the digital prints to 35mm film stock, but Harvey saw the writing on the wall – digital would soon be king on the small screen.

“After all the years in the business, managing multiple theaters, and getting to know many people who worked in the film industry everything was all going along well from a business standpoint until COVID-19 hit. I knew this was the end of my involvement.”

Empty movie theater at an AMC Worldgate 9 Theater. Although taken pre-pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon then and still isn’t during COVID-19 to see vacant movie theaters showing their films to a less than packed venue. Herndon, Va., Oct. 19, 2017 | Photo via Wikimedia, St. George News | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Harvey “truly believes” that COVID-19 could be the death of the traditional movie-going experience.

“Going to a movie theater and seeing a feature film as we’ve all done for so many years is over,” Harvey said. “Even as theaters are allowed to open,they will have to do it under such restrictions along with the added expense for COVID safety – which is understandable – and working under limited capacity, theaters just can’t operate that way.”

Economic Considerations

It wasn’t just the pandemic that leads to theaters across the country closing, but also the “staggering” cost of operating a movie theater. Harvey said.

“This business operates on a very narrow margin,” he said. “It had become a struggle for a long time to keep things going.

“When I first started in this business 50 years ago, we’d pay 25-35% on what we took in at the box office for the movie rental. In more recent times, the terms for all theaters – everywhere – is 70-75% in rental fees, now that doesn’t leave much for the owners and operators to make a profit,” Harvey added.

Prior to COVID-19, it was already becoming an uphill battle attracting moviegoers to brick-and-mortar theaters with escalating ticket prices and the cost of concession items like popcorn, soda and andy increasing as well.

“Forget about selling chocolate at the concession stand anymore,” Harvey said. “Most theaters – most theaters – cannot sell chocolate candy because the costs have just gone through the roof.”

In March 2020, Harvey knew it was time to exit stage left from a business he loved.

Stock photo. | Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), St. George News

“I was getting up in years,” he said. “I was 81-years-old at this point, and instead of staying in a business that I enjoyed doing, I decided it was time to retire after 50 years in the industry of operating theaters throughout Southern California and Arizona. It’s a very stressful business.

“It’s not about competing with other theaters, it’s about dealing with the film companies and studios. It’s always been a seller’s market and the sellers dictate the terms.”

The perception is that film studios want every theater to play their movies, Harvey added.

“No – oh no, no, no,” he said. “Egos and politics of the business get in the way and theater owners and managers have to play ball with the studios just right or they will not let you play their movies.”

Disney is the most difficult to work with, he added.

“Man are they ruthless,” Harvey said. “The worst part of it is, and something I don’t miss the most, is that film distribution has changed so much now with everyone streaming everything. The theaters that are open or planning to re-open after the pandemic will face restrictions by the studios to show second-rate movies or a limited release of tent-poll films that will run concurrently on the same day as the streaming option.”

Tent-poll films – major releases – are used to support the financial performance of a studio.

Streaming movies at home versus a night out on the town

Companies like Warner Bros., Disney, Universal, Sony, and others realize the profitability of only airing top-rated movies on venues like Netflix or their own streaming services, Harvey said.

Disney released “Raya and the Last Dragon” on March 5 in 2,000 theaters and simultaneously on its streaming service Disney+ for $29.99, and that was on top of the monthly subscription fee the company charges its customers.

In September 2019, Disney released “Mulan” directly on Disney+ for $29.99, and in December its Pixar animated movie, “Soul,” on Disney+ instead of in theaters.

“The entire family or a group of friends can watch those flicks when they premier, for $30, on a big screen in their living rooms,” said Wolf Richter, founder and publisher of Wolf Street Corp. “Any efforts by a studio to pull this off before the pandemic would have caused all movie theater chains to boycott the releases.”

But the “power relationship between movie studios and the movie theater chains have changed forever” because of COVID, he added.

Blu-ray, one of the latest at-home movie options. What film delivery method is the next best thing? Henderson, Nev., April 19, 2021 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“Are theater chains really going to boycott a studio’s release because it’s released to theaters and in other channels, such as streaming, on the same day, rather than waiting three months later (to release it on Blu-ray or another streaming option), as specified by the traditional ‘theatrical window,’ Richter said. “Yes, they can try.”

Mast and Pugh agree that theater owners are not happy with the changes in the distribution model – opting toward a large percentage of streaming-only releases – and the demands to upgrade theater equipment every few years, at great cost.

Mast and Pugh warn there may be a backlash against the studios if a compromise isn’t reached.

The digital streaming experiment hasn’t sat well with Cinemark, the third-largest theater chain in the United States, which decided to boycott the showing of Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” when it became available for theater release according to Deadline.

“Regardless of how films are presented, studio owners will still make money,” Mast said. “But, the theater owners feel like they’ve been left in the dust. A lot of them just want to walk away and refuse to show major studio first-release films and let them show them virtually on streaming platforms.”

Both sides, Mast added, have to figure out a way forward that will be financially beneficial for everyone, consumers included.

The theatrical window’s evolution

The “theatrical window” – the time span between a movie’s release in theaters and its release on other avenues – traditionally was six months.

In 2010, Disney “unilaterally” reduced the window to three months, “and got away with it, and the other big studios soon followed,” Richter said. “For consumers who wanted to watch new movies at home, the theatrical window always tested their patience.”

File photo courtesy CinemaBlend

Along with some movie studios moving to a theatrical window release of the same day of a virtual showing, other studios have hung on to the traditional six-month waiting period with some recently choosing a three-month and 45-day delay.

With a shifting theatrical window, COVID-19 and the cost to do business, movie theaters have closed.

“The real devastation is as the theaters open, they cannot get the major films that the studios have already committed to streaming,” Harvey said. “Disney announced months ago that all of their product for 2021 would be going on Disney+ with Warner Bros. Entertainment announcing late last year 17 of their major movies for 2021 would be streamed either simultaneously with a limited theater release or a streaming-only option.”

According to the most recent data, 78% of consumers in the U.S. were using a subscription video-on-demand service in 2020, an increase of more than 25% in four years.

The Netflix booth is often a popular attraction during industry conventions. December 2016 | Stock photo, St. George News | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

According to Statista, Netflix is the big dog on the block notching more than 60 million subscriptions for the first time before any competitor in early 2019. By the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2020, Netflix had 73.94 million U.S. subscribers.

The subscriber base in the United States accounts for the majority of Netflix’s worldwide streaming subscriber base, which at the end of 2020 had risen to more than 200 million households.

“This is what will kill the theater business,” Harvey said.

He added, what’s in it for the consumers to go out to the theater?

The movie industry’s future and the effects on the bottom line

For Harvey, hope springs eternal for film studios such as Disney working with theater owners in partnership. But even after the threat of COVID-19 diminishes at-home viewing will continue to increase in popularity.

Richter agrees.

“Studios have figured out how to leverage the exploding popularity of their own streaming services,” Richter said.

Meanwhile, for the movie theaters that haven’t closed or are planning on opening soon, they will be able to barely hang on and maybe going the way of the dodo, he added.

Competing with technology, broadband internet, and affordable big-screen televisions with high definition and theater-quality sound-sound audio, theaters may no longer be a major player in the industry.

In increasing different ways, both Richter and Harvey said, theater’s owners and management have been stripped of any power they may have once had to steer the customer’s to the in-person movie-going experience.

The marquee of the Sunset Megaplex movie theater in St. George, Utah, on Dec. 20, 2019. | Photo by Chris Reed

“That was the appeal of going to a movie theater, to see it on a bigger-than-life screen and in later years with booming surround sound audio,” Harvey said. “You could see emotions of the actor’s faces up close and personal. Streaming at home is not quite the same.”

Still, industry experts believe with all of the challenges and changes movie theaters will not totally disappear.

Prior to the pandemic, global box office receipts at walk-in theaters were a $40 billion industry.

For movie studios such as Disney, in addition to the billions in revenue theaters generate annually, they also help create press, which the company’s franchises use to boosts their other businesses such as theme parks and streaming services.

Most analysts anticipate there to be a measurable demand to resume trips to the theater once COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed.

Though streaming may remain the predominant method of distribution for public consumption, neither Disney nor any of the other major studios have yet gone on record to commit to cutting brick-and-mortar theaters out of their business-model equation.

For more information on the data or organizations listed in this article, click on the links provided within the story.

Representatives from Disney could not be reached for comment. Officials from Megaplex Theaters in St. George would not return multiple phone calls to comment on this article.

The Washington County Historical Society, Associated Press, DriveInMovie.com, CinemaTour.com and Cinema Treasures also contributed to this article.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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