Hays

New drive-in movie theater aims to capture young, family audiences

BUDA, Texas (KXAN) -- A new drive-in movie theater in Hays County opens Friday, and the 33-year-old owner hopes to give younger audiences the same experiences he had when he discovered a drive-in in his teens.

Chris Denny debuts the two-screen Doc's Drive In Theatre on the east side of Buda with double features of "The Addams Family" and the "Goonies" on one screen, and "Rear Window" and "The Addams Family" on the other.

After two years working on the project, Denny thinks he'll be able to tap into a younger and family-oriented crowd that's tired of being told to stay silent during classic films at other theaters.

"If you bring a date you can actually talk with them,," he said. "You bring the family, you can talk with them, interact with them."

Doc's has space for 43 cars at each screen, which are made from stacked shipping containers covered with metal sheeting and screen paint. In the next couple months, he plans to open three movie-themed tiny homes on the property for people to rent overnight, as well as an underground speakeasy bar between the two screens.

With so many distractions and small screens to grab people's attention, Denny hopes he can provide a place to disconnect and enjoy the experience of going to a movie with family or friends.

He discovered a drive-in near his house when he was a teenager, and he enjoyed going with a group of people. He's heard similar stories from a lot of other movie-goers while doing research for the venture.

"It's always a happy memory, a happy story," he said, "so we just wanted to create those memories and share it with everybody else."

The first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey in 1933, according to Smithsonian Magazine, and the popularity of the attractions grew over the next two decades, peaking at 4,063 theaters across the country in 1958.

Just 321 drive-ins exist today, figures from the National Association of Theater Owners show. The number of indoor theaters is also down from the mid-1990s, even though attendance at those theaters remains fairly strong.

Drive-ins were born of the suburbanization of America, said Tom Schatz, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin's Radio, Television and Film Department. They enjoyed several decades of popularity, but started to decline with the rise of shopping malls and the multiplex cinemas that came with them.

"Kids have always flocked to drive-ins and they've been popular with families as well," Schatz said. 

But what U.S. moviegoers want is becoming less important in Hollywood, he said, as executives see the opportunity in emerging foreign markets. China in particular is seeing a surge in the popularity of movie theaters, and that's influencing studios to make more big-budget, big-spectacle films that will appeal to those overseas audiences.

The chances are "pretty slim," he said, that drive-ins will surge back to their post-World War II popularity, but there's still a place for them. "Improved technology, in terms of sound and comfort of modern cars, also are likely to attract crowds, but nothing like what we saw decades ago."

Technological improvements are one reason Denny felt comfortable opening the theater in the first place. High maintenance costs to keep individual speakers working used to be a drain on profitability, he said, but now he's able to let people tune in the movie on their car radios, improving quality and reducing upkeep.

That contributes to the overall movie-going experience he wants to create for people, one he hopes will remain an attraction.

"We built it," he said with a laugh, "so come on down!"


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