The big screen is in big trouble in the South Bay.
In San Pedro, bulldozers are leveling the 37-year-old San Pedro Drive-In to make way for a business park and mini-storage facility.
In north Torrance, Pioneer Theatres stopped showing films about a year ago at its drive-in on Redondo Beach Boulevard and has converted the property into a full-time swap meet.
And Pacific Theaters, owner of a drive-in theater on Torrance Boulevard in west Torrance, has considered closing that facility in favor of commercial development.
Only two other drive-in theaters remain in the South Bay--the South Bay 6 Drive-In in Carson and Pacific's Vermont Drive-In in Gardena. Both apparently are doing well, primarily because they have followed the example of walk-in movie theaters by erecting several screens and offering a variety of films simultaneously.
Increasing land values, the growing popularity of television and videocassette recorders, and changing demographics have combined to bring down drive-in movie screens nationwide. There were 2,218 drive-in movie screens in the country last year, compared to 4,883 in the industry's peak year of 1958, according to the Theatre Assn. of California.
Until recently, however, drive-in theaters in the South Bay and other parts of Southern California were able to resist the crunch by showing first-run movies year-round, industry officials said. Unlike cold-weather drive-in theaters, which typically have 12-week seasons with mostly second-run movies, local drive-ins have been able to turn a profit with new releases and longer seasons, they said.
But for many theaters, good climate is no longer enough, especially in densely populated areas like the South Bay, where undeveloped land is scarce.
"It is going to be tougher and tougher for drive-ins to survive," said Doug Hrdlicka, president of Pioneer Theatres, which tried for four years to make its Redondo Beach Boulevard theater profitable before giving up on movies. "If they are located in residential or business neighborhoods, the property is becoming too valuable. They will do better with a commercial strip or condominiums."
Frans Verschoor, who heads a new Pacific division that is converting theaters to mini-storage operations, said drive-in theater companies in regions like the South Bay are faced with two choices: either build more screens, or stop showing films altogether and develop something else on the property.
"The bottom line is your profit," Verschoor said. "There are only so many acres available, and you have to determine what is your best profit per square foot per year."
In the case of the San Pedro Drive-In, which Pacific is developing into a 137,000-square-foot business park and 75,000-square-foot mini-storage facility, the theater chain concluded that a multiple-screen theater would probably fail because of changing demographics and movie-viewing habits in the area.
"The Anglo population had shown less inclination to go to the drive-in in recent years, and there were not enough Spanish-speaking people coming," Verschoor said. "When the English programs tapered off, we tried Spanish. We had hoped that we would catch a larger portion of the growing Spanish-speaking population, but that was not a big success, either."
A year ago, Verschoor converted the northwest corner of the 13-acre site into a 17,000-square-foot mini-storage facility to test the local market. He said the facility sold out in less than three months. Encouraged by the response, Pacific moved forward with plans to develop the entire property, making it the second Pacific theater to be converted from movies to storage, he said.
Verschoor said Pacific also considered converting its Torrance Boulevard theater into a mini-storage operation, but discovered the mini-storage market in the beach cities was already saturated. While there are no current plans to convert the theater to another use, Verschoor described the property as "prime land" that will eventually be too valuable for use as a movie theater.
It is unlikely that Pacific would add screens to the one-screen Torrance theater, he said, because the property's proximity to the beach and its relative inaccessibility to freeways hampers its ability to draw audiences from beyond Torrance and the beach cities.
"When you are very close to the coast, you are limited as far as your population base is concerned," he said. "We added screens to the Winnetka Drive-In in the San Fernando Valley, but there you are surrounded by miles and miles of population."
Jay Swerdlow, assistant to Pacific's general manager, said the company has no immediate plans to abandon its theater on Torrance Boulevard, but he acknowledged that single-screen theaters are fast becoming obsolete.