The screen can be as simple as a wall that is painted white, or it can be a complex steel truss structure with a complex finish. Originally, a movie's sound was provided by speakers on the screen and later by an individual speaker hung from the window of each car, which would be attached by a wire. This system was superseded by the more economical and less damage-prone method of broadcasting the soundtrack at a low output power on AM or FM Radio to be picked up by a car radio.
The drive-in theater was the creation of Camden, New Jersey, chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., whose family owned and operated the R.M. Hollingshead Corporation chemical plant in Camden. Hollingshead's drive-in opened in New Jersey June 6, 1933, on Admiral Wilson Boulevard at the Airport Circle in Pennsauken, a short distance from Cooper River Park. It offered 500 slots and a 40 by 50 ft screen. He advertised his drive-in theater with the slogan, "The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are." The facility only operated three years, but during that time the concept caught on in other states.
The drive-in's peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spreading across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could take care of their child while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to autos found drive-ins ideal for dates.
In the 1950s, the greater privacy afforded to patrons gave drive-ins a reputation as immoral, and they were labeled "passion pits" in the media. During the 1970s, some drive-ins changed from family fare to exploitation films, as a way to offset declining patronage and revenue. In fact some producers in the 1970s would make exploitation films directly for the drive-in market. Also, during the 1970s, some drive-ins began to show pornographic movies in less family-centered time slots to bring in extra income. This became a problem because it allowed for censored materials to be available to a wide audience, some for whom viewing was illegal, and it was reliant upon the whims of local ordinances controlling such material.
Over time, the economics of real estate made the large property areas increasingly expensive for drive-ins to operate successfully. Land became far too valuable for businesses like drive-ins, which in most cases were summer-only. Widespread adoption of daylight saving time subtracted an hour from outdoor evening viewing time. These changes and the advent of color televisions, VCRs and video rentals led to a sharp decline in the drive-in popularity. Drive-ins were subject to the whim of nature as inclement weather often caused cancellations. They eventually lapsed into a quasi-novelty status with the remaining handful catering to a generally nostalgic audience, though many drive-ins continue to successfully operate in some areas.Many drive-in movie sites remain, repurposed as storage or flea markets sites, often after residential housing or other higher value uses came to the lightly-populated or unpopulated areas where the drive-ins were located.