The air is still warm around the 88 drive-in in Commerce City on Monday. Eighty-four degrees at 8:30 p.m. Heat trapped in the asphalt surrounding the theater escapes back into the atmosphere and mosquitoes come out in swarms to flit around in the cooling, dying light. Despite the warmth and the insects and the odorous mixture of agriculture and industry, the theater’s lot is half-packed with cars, a good turnout for a weeknight.
But there may be only a handful of nights like these remaining at the 88. On June 5, Commerce City council spent over two hours discussing a proposal to rezone the 88 Drive-In lot to allow the development of an 80,500-square-foot multitenant warehouse in its place, just like the Lowe’s distribution center across the street, or the equipment broker next door, or any of the other 429 industrial warehouses in Commerce City.
At the beginning of the hearing, council members were asked if any of them could not make a decision fairly and impartially. None spoke up. Over the course of the meeting, however, it became clear that making an “impartial” decision about a site with outsized sentimental value would be nearly impossible.
“I remember going there, taking the pickup truck, sitting on the back of the tailgate and watching a movie there, so it is really truly disheartening for me to see that the owner would want to sell,” Councilmember Craig Kim said. “This was such a wonderful amenity in Commerce City,” Councilmember Susan Noble said. “Change is always difficult. It reminds me of the song ‘Big Yellow Taxi,’ paving and parking lots and paradise, and all of that good stuff.”
What appeared as a straightforward business deal – owners want to sell, developer wants to develop – is anything but when the business is multigenerational memory making.
The 88 Drive-In is located in the Irondale neighborhood of Commerce City, a historically patchwork square-mile full of agriculture, industry and residences. In 2010, Commerce City adopted the Future Land Use Plan, which earmarked Irondale as an industrial core with a “few residential pockets” allowed to remain. An additional neighborhood-specific plan, Irondale Neighborhood & Infrastructure Plan, was created in 2018, further cementing Irondale’s future.
The Irondale plan was predicated on a belief that new railroad tracks would soon be laid by Union Pacific. Planning documents show a diagonal line of UPRR owned land parcels, where a line could hypothetically connect the Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington North Railroad by cutting through the center of the neighborhood, creating a habitat benefiting industry and little else.
“What happens to drive-ins all over the United States is what’s happening to mine,” Susan Kochevar told the city council in June. Kochevar’s family has owned and operated the 88 since 1976. “The cities grow up around us, the lights go up,” she said. “We have the FedEx lights, which are extremely bright and affect the picture. The property across the street from me is going to be redeveloped so I have that issue that affects my picture.”
Kochevar continued listing surrounding businesses whose lights and sounds pollute the theater’s atmosphere, then transitioned into listing other hurdles that have made operating the 88 too costly to continue. Things like needing a new projector, COVID supply chain issues, inflation keeping customers away, and now the Hollywood writer’s strike. In short, she wants out. And for a few months, it seemed like First Industrial Real Estate had her ticket.
First Industrial, a Chicago-based national realty trust, has seven properties in the Denver metro area, all of them warehouses. John Strable, regional manager for Colorado, was hopeful that they could make the 88 Drive-In parcel their eighth. But as the city council meeting dragged on, it became clear that he wasn’t going to get the approval he’d hoped for.
Eventually Mayor Benjamin Huseman decided to push the proposal back until July 17, and requested a traffic analysis and a “market analysis that demonstrates a community need” in the meantime. First Industrial withdrew the proposal.
Both 88 Drive-In and First Industrial were contacted for this article, but neither chose to comment.
“Drive-ins are certainly not closing due to lack of business,” said Stephanie Webb, co-owner of the Holiday Twin drive-in in Fort Collins. “They’re closing because the land is so valuable you can make 10 to 20 times more in one fell swoop than you’ll ever make in your drive-in business. It’s hard to not say let’s just take the money and run.”
The Holiday was one of five theaters that her late husband, Wes Webb, owned when they got married in 1997. Drive-in theaters were his “retirement plan, for lack of a better term,” Webb said. As he sold the drive-ins one by one, it became increasingly evident that their value was greater than the property’s price tag. “You’re not just affecting a few lives, but whole communities by selling these pieces of property,” she said.
By the time someone came asking about the Holiday land – the last remaining drive-in in Wes’ portfolio – Webb wasn’t willing to face the disappointments of another community. She asked her husband not to sell. He told her that if she wanted to keep it, she’d have to run it. With the help of her sons, the Holiday is in its 55th season.
CJ Cisar, Webb’s oldest son, is now the general manager of the Holiday Twin. He’s a “Star Wars” guy, and an “Indiana Jones” fan. He grew up in the industry and remembers fighting his younger brother with lightsabers on the roof of the Holiday Twin when “Attack of the Clones” was released.
When he was old enough to see over the counter he started working the concessions. He eventually became a projectionist, building the giant film reels when they came in and learning how to fix them on the fly.
He knows how to perform the “flying splice,” how to address a “brain wrap.” He has built dozens of films, meaning he has taken the reels of film that the studio ships to the theater, taped the film and rolled it onto 6-foot-wide platters, then lined the platters up on a multitiered crank system so the projector can pull the film through smoothly. The longest movie Cisar ever built was “The Dark Knight.” The second longest was “Twilight.” Both were eight reels worth of film.
But Cisar hasn’t had to build or splice film since 2013, when the family sunk $360,000 into switching over to digital. The switch from film reels to hard drives (or streaming, for some theaters) meant that the Holiday had to buy two new projectors which cost about $100,000 each, and refit the building to give each one a sealed, temperature-controlled environment. Now Cisar just presses buttons.
Still, there’s plenty to do around the drive-in to ensure its continued success. Like managing the 45-person staff, building new fencing, upgrading concessions, and weeding, which is what we catch Webb doing on Tuesday night when we arrive.
“Working owner,” she said, as we approached. Webb loves being a business owner. She can point to every fence post on the 2-acre property and tell you when it was installed and how much it cost – the corrugated metal fence to the west cost $30,000 and was paid for by an uptick in events in 2020, when the pandemic shutdown indoor venues. The north fence cost $18,000.
“When you live on thin margins, you have to wait. So sometimes we piecemeal it together,” she said, pointing at a rickety fence with flaking paint that divides the two screens. One of the next major projects they’re saving up for is the $40,000 move of streetlights from one side of their long driveway to the other. When the lights were installed, the property was surrounded by open fields, but now a development called Mountains Edge Townhomes lines the road. The streetlights beam straight into their windows.
When Mountain Edge was under construction, Webb paid for an 80-by-40 sign that said “This is an active business, be aware before you buy.” So far, the drive-in has only received a few scattered complaints from the new neighborhood about the traffic and the lights. “Basically, our thing is, you knew what you were getting into,” she said.
Ryan Mounce, a city planner in Fort Collins, said that the city considers preexisting nuisances on a case-by-case basis. “With something like the Holiday Twin, that’s a long-established place in the community. There are lots of memories from many residents, and it’s a historic local institution,” he said. So the city makes sure that developers include buffers for future residents, like setbacks and landscaping that can decrease light, noise, odor, or whatever the potential nuisance might be. For cases like the Holiday, Mounce said, the city relies on voluntary friendliness between developers, new residents and their well-established neighbors.
When Josh Frank started the Blue Starlite, a pop-up drive-in with locations in Austin, Miami and Minturn, he felt like he was the youngest person in the industry. He was 33 at the time and had always dreamed of being a creator, a showman. He started a dessert shop out of a vintage trailer in Austin and bought some drive-in equipment to project movies on its side. He had so much fun with the outdoor movie showings, that he decided to take those speakers and start a drive-in business.
Starting from scratch allowed him to “read between the lines,” he said. He looked at why most drive-ins were closing and found that the answer was surprisingly simple: land.
“The business model I created was one that didn’t rely on the land to keep the dream alive,” he said. The Blue Starlite is a pop-up screen that Frank has set up on nine locations over 14 years: seven in Austin, one in Miami, and one in Minturn. He’s run the Minturn location for seven years, but had to pause it this summer due to some family issues that kept him anchored in Texas.
“It’s been difficult to be a grown-up, and make decisions based on grown-up things,” Frank said, about the decision not to run the Minturn pop-up this year. “Minturn is my happy place – under that mountain, showing those movies.” He’s determined to bring the screen back next year. In the meantime, though, Frank is encouraged by what he sees as a resurgence in drive-in ownership. He mentions a couple in Pennsylvania who recently purchased the nation’s oldest drive-in, Shankweiler’s circa 1934, and found him on Facebook. “I’m in love with these people!” Frank said. “Fourteen years ago I had no one to geek out about this stuff with. Now there’s couples my age that’re finding me on Facebook and we’re sharing stories about running our drive-ins!”
Frank thinks that there’s a generation – specifically, Gen X – of people who grew up watching movies at drive-ins and are now in the position to run them. At 47, he said he’s pleased to be an “elder” in the next generation of drive-in owners.
Bad neighbors aren’t an issue for rural sites like the Frontier Drive-inn just outside of Center, which screened its first film last summer.
Mark Falcone, the founder of Denver’s Continuum Partners, bought the defunct drive-in site in 2017. Similar to many other drive-ins around the state, the revitalized Frontier was a family business from the start. “We’d been looking for something that the four of us could work on,” said Luke Falcone, Mark’s son and the property’s architect. “This kind of presented itself at just the right time.”
None of the Falcones had any experience with the movie industry. “The Frontier was more about our connection to the San Luis Valley than our interest in movies,” Luke admitted. “But, you know, it’s not a very valuable piece of land per se. It’s right off the highway, in the corner of a crop circle. There’s really not a lot there, just the screen, the sign and the remnants of the old snack bar. So we had to do something with that.”
The family wasn’t able to get their licensing together to show films to the public – they’re a family of developers and designers, Luke said, reiterating their distance from the movie industry – so for now they can only show films for guests staying on the property. The screen is classified as an “amenity,” which allows them to screen films for their guests without having to obtain the expensive permits. Rather than keep a car park, they laid out a lawn.
But Luke’s vision for the property is bigger than the screen. “There seems to be this resurgence in the San Luis Valley, and a love for that part of the world,” he said. “It’s always been a place that attracted creative energy, but it seems to be at this moment a real kind of excitement, and a real kind of interconnectedness.”
Luke built the San Luis Valley site as a platform for community members to bring their own ideas in.
Everyone who shows up has a unique idea for how to use it, Luke said. Whether it’s a video game tournament, or a reception for a nearby art installation, or the town of Center collaborating on their opening party, part of the land’s value is what other people bring to it.
“And shoot, I mean, who doesn’t love the movies?” Luke added. “Being able to sit under the stars and watch a movie is such a cool experience.”
So while some, like Kochevar, have loved and are ready to leave, others like Frank and Falcone are driven toward innovation. “Every year is a year where great classic drives-ins close forever. That’s just the business we’re in,” said Frank. As of November 2022, there were 302 drive-ins left in the United States, seven in Colorado, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. But he’s still friending new drive-in owners on Facebook, and taking them under his wing the way others have done for him.
On the wall of the projection room at the Holiday Twin is a framed front page of the Fort Collins Coloradoan. A headline reads: “The Holiday Twin stands proudly in dwindling market.” The article is from over 20 years ago.
In an industry that’s one-part fun and most-parts nostalgia, it’s likely that we’ll be having the same conversation next year, and the year after that, wondering each time if we’re staying past the credits hoping for a bonus scene, or if we’re witnessing a preview of what’s to come.
“As long as you have a passionate owner, or a family that’s interested in it, you’ll always have drive-ins,” Webb said. “It’s part of Americana, it’s an icon in our culture.”