Sacramento’s last outdoor movie theater keeps on drivin'

Park the car and relax: Outdoor theaters such as the West Wind Sacramento 6 are attracting film fans looking for blockbuster fun

Relax, the West Wind Sacramento drive-in is open year-round and, occording to its owners, not shutting down anytime soon.

Relax, the West Wind Sacramento drive-in is open year-round and, occording to its owners, not shutting down anytime soon.

Photos by Lisa Baetz

On any given Friday or Saturday night— or maybe even a Tuesday evening— drivers crossing over Highway 50 via the Bradshaw Road exit are likely to see lines of cars, all bound for the West Wind Sacramento 6 drive-in theater—the last drive-in in the Sacramento area.

It may seem like an old-fashioned anomaly but the Sacramento 6 is actually pretty modern. And business is doing great. The theater, open year-round, was built in 1973 and originally had five screens. Its last-standing competitor, the Sunrise in Fair Oaks, closed a decade ago.

Back then, drive-ins increasingly appeared to be a thing of the past, a dying piece of American culture.

Today, filmgoers can choose from copious entertainment options—via Netflix, the Internet, multiplex theaters, etc.—something that would seemingly seal the fate of the drive-in more than ever. Locally, rumors of the Sacramento 6’s demise have run rampant for years. In reality, outdoor theaters are not only surviving—in some cases they’re actually thriving.

There’s talk of a new national outdoor chain, for example. And around here, there are no plans to sell, close or demolish the West Wind Sacramento 6, says Tony Maniscalco, vice president of marketing for Syufy Enterprises, the company that owns it.

“That drive-in is one of our better performing drive-in theaters,” Maniscalco says.

Most might find that surprising given all the “death of the drive-in” articles that show up every few years or so.

“What’s funny is that ’this is our last year’ is something that we’ve never said. It’s one of those things that the media puts out there.”

And that’s OK, he adds.

“It’s good for our business because [now] everyone wants to go out to the drive-in,” Maniscalco says.

Outside is in

The renewed popularity of theaters such as the Sacramento 6 isn’t unusual. Drive-ins all over the country have experienced a resurgence of sorts. Syufy owns seven drive-ins (making them the largest drive-in chain globally) and Maniscalco says they are seeing increased attendance at all of those theaters. In fact, two of the seven were recently re-opened: the West Wind in Concord, which opened in 2007, and one in Santa Barbara, which opened in 2010.

The new interest, Maniscalco says, isn’t surprising.

“I think what’s happened is drive-in operators started paying closer attention to their properties, they’ve cleaned them up, brought in new equipment. It’s not just us, but everybody in the business,” he says.

The West Wind chain is actually an anomaly, as it’s corporate owned. Of the 350-plus drive-ins currently open in the states, most are independently owned and operated and typically located in small, rural towns. Many of those small-town indies are also enjoying better attendance.

Take the 99W for example, a drive-in in Newberg, Ore., owned and operated by Brian Francis, whose grandfather built the theater in 1953. He says he noticed fresh interest in the theater in the early 2000s.

“All the urban legends had gone through everyone’s head that there weren’t any drive-ins anymore, [but] through word-of-mouth and the Internet, it became known to people that there was still a drive-in around here,” Francis says.

People flocked to the 99W for a chance to try the car theater experience firsthand, he says.

“We’re able to attract business from the larger cities. There’s no drive-in in the Portland area. There’s no drive-in in Vancouver, Washington. You have to go up about 200 miles to find a drive-in in the state of Washington,” he says.

The biggest customer base, Francis adds, comprises out-of-towners who visit annually to get their drive-in fix—and they’re people of all ages.

Sacramento’s scene is similar, even though technically it’s more centralized, located at the border of Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, and it gets business from people who live downtown or in surrounding areas.

Over the years, drive-ins have been an important part of Sacramento’s entertainment culture. And why not: This is a big, sprawling city with excellent weather.

The area’s drive-in culture is storied: There was once an X-rated outdoor theater, Davis’ Westlane Drive-In, that closed in 1986.

Local filmmaker Jason Rudy made a campy short about local drive-in culture called A Tale of Two Drive-Ins. The film also spotlights an old Elk Grove drive-in church.

Drive-in culture, Rudy says, had a big influence on his art. His film company, Desperate Visions, which makes exploitation-influenced films, uses the tag line “Drive-in films for the digital audience,” for example, and also sports a drive-in marquee-themed logo.

The retro imagery and style that Rudy references evolved over time starting in the late ’60s and into the late ’70s. By then, drive-ins had become the home to many low budget B-movies and exploitation films depicting sex and violence. Then, drive-ins didn’t have a lot of access to first-run big-budget Hollywood films, mostly because of the relationship that the studios had with the indoor theaters.

“The bigger blockbuster films generally played in hard-top theaters, but the indies and regional films played in the drive-in,” Rudy explains.

They still held an appeal to certain audiences, however, he adds.

“[They attracted] a lot of teenage kids that wanted a place to go that was outside of home, and they could go to their drive-in if they had their license. They can make out with their girlfriends and they could have their own little thing,” Rudy says. “You can drink beer and do drugs and stuff you can’t do at a regular theater.”

Such debauchery wasn’t initially the convention, however. When the first drive-ins opened in the early ’30s, they were considered a novelty, and attracted mostly families. In the ’50s, as Americans became car obsessed, the outdoor theaters became more geared toward teenage audiences, showing horror and serial films. In 1952, drive-ins sales were more substantial than sit-down theaters. By 1958, there were roughly 5,000 drive-ins in the country. By the ’60s and ’70s, however, B-movies had become more graphic, which changed drive-ins’ image.

It was the ’80s that almost killed the drive-in. The advent of VHS and cable TV created a more lucrative market for B-movies and that, combined with a rise in property values and multiplexes, meant that many outdoor theaters were forced to shut down. The ones that lasted found other streams of revenue by hosting flea markets and swap meets.

As such, those drive-ins that remained were forced to upgrade to digital projectors as a means of survival—it’s the only way to have access to first-run films.

Not that everyone cares about catching that latest blockbuster outdoors. For many—whether those discovering the drive-in for the first time, or those revisiting an old favorite—the reason to choose that option over an indoor movie house (not to mention all those other film-watching options) is entirely different.

“It’s really not about the movie, it’s about the experience of being at the drive-in,” says former Crest Theatre manager and film enthusiast Matías Bombal. “With the drive-in, you can truly have your own environment in your car, and participate communally. In the [indoor] theater you have some social requirements, which are not necessarily [required] if you’re in the front seat of your car.”

And there are other signs, too, that drive-ins are suddenly trendy. The Johnny Rockets hamburger chain has announced plans to team with USA Drive-Ins to open 200 brand new theaters by 2018.

As strongly as this indicates the resurgence of drive-ins, this popularity could be its downfall too, because for a lot of drive-in fanatics, the appeal exists in their uniqueness of character. Even in the case of a corporately owned place such as the West Wind, there’s still a big difference between being one in seven than being part of a 200-chain mold.

Christy Savage, who produces film fests and helps run the Trash Film Orgy production company, says she loves outdoor theaters both for the nostalgia—she remembers going as a kid—and because they create an experience that just can’t be replicated by their sterile indoor counterparts.

“I can go with a large group of friends,” she says. “Bring snacks, sneak in booze, joke during the movie and not even bother the people nearby.”