A Recipe For Destruction
Courtesy among competing showmen was a thing fast disappearing by the sixties, when the decline in attendance, coupled with television’s ongoing encroachment, forced theatres to adopt ruinous booking policies --- an exhibitor’s hara-kiri with first-run features the weapon of choice. NBC had just introduced a Fall lineup of blockbuster post-48 movies on Saturday evenings, and syndicated packages of recent releases gave viewers plenty of reason to stay home nights. Desperate exhibitors retaliated by front-loading their marquees with triple helpings --- drive-ins were particularly at fault. This first ad presents the outdoor theater menu for a weekend in December of 1961. These were big new pictures at the top of the bill --- The Guns Of Navarone was a June release and still a viable attraction for the hardtops. Here it’s lumped with two other features (Bend Of The River must have been nice on that big screen) for a show that tipped the clock at seven hours plus. Five years later, things were worse. Now they were serving four shows, and for only a dollar a car! Trade press editorials fulminated against this eat-or-be-eaten policy. It was no isolated incident, they said. Brand new releases were being burned off day and date between indoor and outdoor venues, only the drive-in mob was enjoying four helpings for the price of the one that downtown patrons were getting. This sample from April 1966 illustrates the bargain awaiting crowds at the Trenton Drive-In, where three of the attractions were less than three months in release. The problem was attributed to "industry-wide chaos and confusion" that resulted from the distributor’s abandonment of long established clearance and playoff patterns. Drive-in operators were "scratching each other’s eyes out", they said. A short-term bargain for the customers, but a long-term disaster for showmen. Few could have anticipated the real disaster, and the eventual near-extinction, that lay in wait for drive-ins, nor the insatiable appetite of television networks gobbling up theatrical hits before theaters could even play them off. Exhibition as we’d known it was headed for oblivion. Reading these anxious editorials can be a little sad when you realize what so many of these guys had to look forward to. At least a few of them saw it coming.