After one of America’s oldest drive-ins announced it was closing last week, Maine’s other drive-in owners conceded that the climate isn’t easy for them right now — but the nostalgic entertainment isn’t going anywhere.
The Saco Drive-In, which announced its sale last week, won’t reopen. Instead, it will become the new site of a Hale Trailer dealership, a national company that has operated a Portland outlet since 1984, said Neal Bangor, general manager of the company’s Portland location.
For a movie theater that has operated since before the onset of World War II, many see the closure as the end of an era. It is the oldest drive-in in Maine and is the third-oldest drive-in movie theater in the U.S., according to both Don Sanders, who has co-written two books on drive-in movie theaters, and Nick Hensgen, who tracks the theaters on his site, DriveInMovie.com.
Consumer trends, the pandemic and other financial reasons have led to drive-ins closing across the country in recent years. Many were built on large swathes of land outside major metros, locations that have seen their property tax valuation go up in recent years. There’s also increased competition from an unexpected place: the home, where streaming services have become more prevalent.
Those are all reasons why there are fewer drive-ins today than there were 30 to 40 years ago, said John Tevanian, 53, of Naples, owner of Bridgton Twin Drive-In.
“Land just becomes too valuable to keep it operating as a drive-in,” Tevanian said.
As the roughly half a dozen remaining drive-ins in Maine navigate an increasingly difficult business, the businesses’ continued success and survival is the only thing that will maintain the last remnants of what many see as a classic symbol of Americana in Maine.
For Tevanian, drive-ins have one strong advantage over indoor cinemas: despite the availability and cost effectiveness of home theater systems, they offer an experience that is far more difficult to replicate.
Sanders’ drive-in has always been community-focused but it became increasingly family-focused in recent years — a phenomenon that has occurred across the country, he said.
While there was a time in the ‘70s and ‘80s when horror and B-movies did great business at the drive-in, today it is family films that draw the most cars. Families are also a strong niche group on which drive-ins can build around, Tevanian said.
“Restaurants are still around even though you might have a great kitchen at home,” Tevanian said. “Drive-ins are going to remain.”
Tevanian’s brother, Andrew Tevanian, who formerly operated Prides Corner Drive-In in Westbrook, said his father had always been motivated by their passion for drive-ins rather than financial gain. The senior John Tevanian, who entered the business with his brother in the 1950s, ran drive-ins seasonally to supplement his teacher salary.
“If you want to be a money-maker, you get into Wall Street or become a lawyer,” Andrew Tevanian said. “You don’t become a school teacher and open a drive-in.”
For Andrew Tevanian, the loss of the Saco Drive-In was devastating not only for Maine, but for the U.S. as it continues to lose its drive-ins. He compared it to the demolition of Portland’s historic Union Station in 1961. Today the site is a shopping plaza.
“When these things go, a piece of history disappears,” Andrew Tevanian said. “And you can’t get that back.”
There is not a set date for when the trailer dealership will move to the Saco site, said Bangor, who formerly taught at Saco Middle School, but the drive-in is not expected to resume playing movies again.
“We have been looking for a bigger property in Southern Maine for many years now,” Bangor said. “I am incredibly excited for Hale Trailer Brake & Wheel to join the Saco-Biddeford community.”
The closure of the Saco Drive-In reflects the fallout from the numerous changes faced by smaller movie theaters since the beginning of the pandemic, said Don Brown, 59, who has owned the Skowhegan Drive-In since 2012.
While 2020 saw fairly strong business, 2021 was a challenging year for the Skowhegan Drive-In due in large part to the loss of the “window of exclusivity” on new releases, Brown said. Many of that year’s biggest films, including Godzilla vs. Kong, Cruella, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad and Dune all premiering simultaneously in theaters and on streaming services like DisneyPlus and HBOMax.
“I’ve been in this industry since 1983 … and I’ve never seen a summer season like 2021,” Brown said. “It was like the drive-in didn’t matter anymore.”
Brown hopes that his and other theaters can have more exclusivity in summer 2022 but doubts that it will ever go back to how movies were distributed pre-pandemic.
If current trend continues, Brown expects that other drive-ins and movie theaters both in Maine and across the country will shut down. Still, the remaining drive-ins and in-door theaters could become attractions in their own right due to novelty, he said.
Movie theaters in the U.S. made $4.5 billion in 2021, double the 2020 number but still down nearly 60 percent from 2019, according to an analysis by Comscore.
When the Skowhegan theater opens up in May, he is just hoping that the big releases it has at its disposal are stronger than last year.
“It’s a challenge right now,” Brown said. “There’s no doubt about it.”