A Good Ol' (New) Time: Study shows that the drive-in is still going strong

Cinemas Features

There are a couple of misconceptions about drive-in theatres that Lee Evans, and Donna and Rod Saunders would like to dispel.

One: They’re a sordid make-out spot where teens go to park and party. Not true, says Donna Saunders, co-owner with husband Rod of Ohio’s two-location Field of Dreams Drive-in. “It’s not like that anymore. I joke that the teenagers don’t know what we used to do back then!” Donna chuckles. “It’s very much family-oriented now. You do get groups of teenagers that come in, but they camp outside their vehicles. They have their lawn chairs, and everybody sits outside and enjoys the movie together.”

Two: The drive-in movie theatre is dead. There are a few still hanging around, sure, but the bulk of them shuttered their gates when audiences turned en masse to the multiplex. The ones still in existence are tumbleweed-infested dinosaurs, their business model no longer relevant to the wider world of exhibition.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. And you don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence to know it: Cold, hard data from SurveyMe’s 2018 study on drive-in movie theatres, presented at the 18th annual UDITOA (United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association) Convention, paints a picture of a corner of the exhibition world that’s far from dead. In fact, argues SurveyMe CEO and founder Lee Evans, moviegoers want more of the drive-in experience. “They want more drive-ins and more drive-ins open year-round. Obviously, in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where drive-ins are the strongest, that’s not possible, because of the weather. But I think there’s room for more drive-ins to be opened.”

SurveyMe’s drive-in survey polled nearly 4,000 moviegoers representing 116 drive-in theatres across 36 states, a number that represents a third of the country’s total. 71% of the respondents were female, and 57% were of a “‘family unit’ age”—aka a person between the ages of 31 and 50, the most likely demographic to bring children to the drive-in. Indeed, 25% of drive-in attendees cite “family experience” as the number-one factor behind their visits to the drive-in.

Those in the 31-50 range are also willing to travel the longest distance to get to a drive-in theatre: 39.1 miles, more than twice the distance your average moviegoer is willing to traverse to visit an indoor, or “hardtop,” theatre. “On a regular basis,” says Donna, Field of Dreams attendees “usually come from 50 miles away. And specifically in our Liberty Center location, it’s not unusual to have international folks”—visitors from Australia, Denmark and “all over the place” who want a taste of good, old-fashioned Americana.

Your average moviegoer, per the MPAA, visits a hardtop theatre 3.4 times a year. SurveyMe found that that number among drive-in attendees jumps to five annual visits. Narrow the field to the key 18-23 demographic, and it’s six. If you think those figures are impressive, know that they actually undersell the level of loyalty drive-in movie theatres typically see from their customers, since—as pointed out by the survey—many drive-ins are only open six months out of every 12.

Through statistics, the reality of the modern drive-in landscape emerges. The drive-in is populated by loyal, passionate customers. It’s centered around community. The drive-in experience is not sitting down, shutting up and watching a picture. “It’s more of a group experience instead of an individual car experience now,” Rod says. “The chairs and the camping equipment that’s available now at very low prices have changed the drive-in. People get to our drive-in, they set up their little camp area for the night, and they’re ready to be entertained. Part of that entertainment is: Who are you going to meet, and who are you going to make friends with? Everybody’s there for the same reason and the same goal. If you’re a young family and you have little kids and they’re noisy, nobody’s upset about that. If you take them to an indoor [theatre], people get upset. At the drive-in, nobody cares.”

“You’ll see people talk amongst their vehicles,” adds Donna. “They didn’t know each other before they got there. But by the end of the night, they’re got new friends, people who just happened to park next to them.”

“It’s inexpensive, but not cheap,” says Rod; at the Field of Dreams theatres, it’s $25 per carload of people, plus an additional $5 if you want to bring your own food. (Individual prices are available as well.) “For $30, a family of five or six can come in and have a great time, from seven at night to two in the morning. There aren’t too many places that you can do that.”

And it’s not just families with young kids that love the drive-in. Millennials, too, are among drive-in theatres’ most loyal customers; per SurveyMe’s findings, “qualitative evidence suggests that the drive-in is a popular low-cost social experience for younger generations.” Contrary to conventional opinion, the survey indicates that “Millennials comprise a more significant age demographic at drive-ins than Baby Boomers.”

Millennials “are coming because the online social capital that they’re so busy building is driven by the excitement and the entertainment and the experiential value they get” from drive-in theatres’ more social-oriented atmosphere, Evans explains. “You’ve got a group of Millennials who are passionate about these experiences. They absolutely love it. It’s unique.”

Though many erroneously associate drive-ins with the past, much of what moviegoers love about them is reflective of the issues that the exhibition industry as a whole is dealing with today. The communal atmosphere of the drive-in echoes that which the ever-more-popular realm of event cinema strives to achieve. As indoor movie theatres struggle with if/how to allow to phones and social media, drive-ins take advantage of the fact that younger generations find the drive-in experience inherently more #hashtaggable and #FOMO-inducing (that’s “Fear Of Missing Out” in Insta-slang) than its hardtop counterpart.

And the owners of drive-in cinemas, Evans explains, are a nimble bunch who “listen and take action” based on the desires of customers. At the Field of Dreams, that translates to their own version of reserved seating (you can pay $10 to claim a spot in advance, enabling you to roll up in your packed minivan at the last moment) and the seat-side (well, car-side) delivery of pizza. When summer rolls around, ice cream is getting added to the menu.

That results in high customer commitment, shown in the average drive-in Net Promoter Score—reflecting how likely a customer is to recommend a business to others—of 9.3 out of ten. “The only company I’ve ever seen with that high of a Net Promoter Score is Apple at its height. It’s because [owners] listen to their guests that the guests are so committed and engaged and return more frequently than they do to a hardtop.” Donna estimates, based on Field of Dreams’ loyalty program, that around 20 percent of their visitors are regular customers who “come back on a monthly basis. A much smaller percentage are even more regular than that, coming two or three times a month.”

People still love drive-in theatres. They always have, despite their decreasing numbers over the years. Evans argues that the closing of drive-ins has less to do with audience apathy than “the financial angle,” specifically regarding tax money—a big-box store is going to bring in more taxes than a drive-in theatre on the same plot of land. The drive-in that Donna and Rod Saunders went to when then were growing up, Rod recalls, closed because, as the nearby town grew, “it was harder and harder [for] them to operate with all the lights and noise pollution.” Nowadays, the drive-in world has gotten more niche—but, conversely, more accessible in some ways, given the increased availability of affordable sound and digital projection equipment. “Drive-ins are known for not having the best equipment, but still putting up a good picture,” Rod says. “As the price comes down on equipment, I think you’ll start seeing [more] drive-ins pop up.”

Rod and Donna’s experience—and the information laid out by SurveyMe—reveal a beloved bit of American culture that belongs to the present and the future, not just the past. “The drive-in industry is not dying. It doesn’t have as big of a footprint as it did in its heyday, but they’re alive and doing well,” Rod asserts. “If you get out to one, you’re going to have a great time. It’s awful hard not to have a good time at a drive-in. You gotta be one miserable type of person not to have fun. That’s the point that really needs to be made.”

Survey Says…

SurveyMe asked 3,783 moviegoers, representing 116 U.S. drive-in movie theatres across 36 states 11 questions about their drive-in movie theatre experience. This survey was conducted between December 2017 and January 2018, and then analyzed by age and gender.

This survey's results may not be completely accurate for each drive-in, as they all have their own individual needs, but the methodology used for collecting the data is statistically sound and verifiable.

Of the 3,783 respondents, 96% have visited a drive-in and 84% visited within the last 12 months. 71% of respondents were female (31% between the ages of 31 and 40) and their responses suggest they are the gender most likely to influence their friends and families' decision to go to the drive-in.

Overall, the largest group of respondents at 30% were between the ages of 31 and 40, 27% of respondents were in the 41-50 age bracket and 23% of respondents can be defined as Millennials (18- to 30-year-olds).

Overall, the average age for drive-in moviegoers tends to be older than hardtop movie theatres, but Millennials comprise a more significant age demographic at drive-ins than the Baby Boomer generation.

While generational influence is crucial to drive-ins, social media and word of mouth are popular amongst Millennials.

SurveyMe discovered that there are two demographics significant to the future of drive-in movie theatres: "Rockstar Memory-Makers" and "Millennial Memory-Makers."

A drive-in Rockstar Memory-Maker is a female between 35 and 45 and the strongest advocate for the future of drive-ins. The number-one reason Rockstar Memory-Makers state for going to the drive-in is “a family experience" and they are typically the decision-makers determining whether their family will attend the drive-in.

Still, Rockstar Memory-Makers want more value and flexibility within their family experience and they don't hesitate to vocalize the changes they want made. 56% of suggestions regarding children’s play areas came from Rockstar Memory-Makers, 37% of all comments to ban smoking or smoke-free areas came from Rockstar Memory-Makers, and only 0.5% of Rockstar Memory-Makers suggested alcohol should be sold at drive-ins.

Millennial Memory-Makers were the second most engaged feedback group and 41% made positive suggestions about how to improve their experience. This group is one of the most active on social media, and it's no surprise that 58% purchase movie tickets online or via an app ahead of the movie showing. They also don't mind spending money to get food items that interest them, spending 27% more at the concession area per visit (on average) than other age groups.

Despite this, 10% of Millennials admit to wanting to bring their own food into the drive-in, although 14% of Millennials also want some form of car delivery at the drive-in. In other words, variety and personalization are important factors in their decision-making process.

Qualitative evidence (seen through open-ended comment questions) implies drive-ins are a low-cost social experience for younger generations. To encourage this experience, drive-in owners should consider creating a safe social space for Millennials. Today's Millennials will be the family drive-in Memory-Makers within ten years.

Here are some other key findings from the 11 questions asked on the survey:

The older you are, the more likely you are to have visited a drive-in and the more likely you are to recommend that experience to your social network. 99% of respondents over 51 have been to a drive-in, making them the influencers of future drive-in Memory-Makers.

Any NPS score over 9 is considered excellent. The average drive-in NPS scores across the nation were 9.3 (females) and 9.2 (males), with the average NPS score for all age demographics being 9.3.

Overall, guests are 25.2 times more positive (scoring 6-10) than negative (scoring 0-4) about visiting a drive-in—in fact, 72% of respondents said they were “extremely likely” (score of 10) to recommend visiting to a friend. This means both genders are equally evangelical about the drive-in experience within their social network.

The survey results showed both genders are willing to travel approximately the same distance—males 42.5 miles and females 37.5 miles. 92% of respondents also say there is a drive-in within the distance they are prepared to travel.

The data also shows that the average distance a drive-in moviegoer will travel is just over twice as far as the average travel distance to a hardtop (18.1 miles on average).

Interestingly, Millennials will also travel more than twice as far for a drive-in experience (38.5 mile average) than to a hardtop theatre (16.3 mile average).

This study found that the top five reasons to visit included: Family Experience, Nostalgia, Personal Space, Atmosphere, and Multiple Movie Viewings.

Quite simply, the older you are the less pre-show advertising you want to see. As each demographic increases, the tolerance to pre-show advertising decreases by at least 30 seconds.

The top five genres are:

* Comedy (81%)—most popular with women (83%)

* Action (76%)—most popular with men (86%)

* Adventure (70%)

* Family (68%)

* Animation (62%)

Fountain soda (84%) is the most popular beverage across genders and age demographics and bottled water (53-62%) is the second most popular choice, but iced tea (41%) is consistently purchased across all age demographics.

Though 11% of male and 12% of female guests are happy with their current experience, over 2,500 ideas for improvement were presented (25% coming from the 31-40 age demographic).

SurveyMe placed these suggestions into six categories: Concession (21%), Ambiance (15%), Restrooms (14%), Parking (12%), Ticketing (11%), and Facilities (9%). Of the 526 concession improvement ideas, 22% wanted delivery-to-vehicle, 13% gave concession discount suggestions, and 6% wanted better line management.

While 33% of females and 26% of males claim to have one or more allergies, nearly seven in every ten drive-in guests stated that none of their group suffers from allergies that would affect their concession choices. Still, 31% of guests have more than one allergy, with dairy (9%) and gluten (9%) being the most frequently reported.

You can download the complete results of SurveyMe's drive-in theatre survey here