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How Much Does It Cost to Build a Drive-in Movie Theater?

Drive Thru Movie Theater Business

Do you want to start a drive-in movie theater business and want to know the cost breakdown? If YES, here are 9 factors that affect the cost of opening a drive-in movie theater.

Drive-ins are experiencing a resurgence in some markets that target older customers who look to relive their childhood. All you need is a playground, arcade, and concession stand to improve your customer experience. The sound is usually broadcasted over radio waves and received by each car’s stereo system where patrons can control the volume.

Note that a successful drive-in owner will have a love of film and a desire to entertain families in an all-American style. You shouldn’t mind working nights, weekends, and holidays as these are peak times for the movie business.

This business meanwhile generates revenue by selling tickets to films and through the sale of concession products. Most of the profit is generated through food and drink sales as film distributors take a serious portion of ticket sales for new films.

The preferred customers for this kind of business will be someone looking for an old-fashioned movie-going experience.

Drive-in movies reached peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Owing to that, many drive-in customers will be seeking a sense of nostalgia for entertainment in those times. Tailoring the theme of your theatre and décor to such a historical period can help satisfy the wants and needs of your customers.

There are three main ways to get a drive-in up and running: buy one that is open, re-open a closed one, or build one from scratch. Note that the first method is by far the best option since you have the operating infrastructure, even if run-down; but it may not be where you want it to be and may not be for sale.

The second option offers you greater scope as you will not be paying for goodwill, but even an existing location can involve a lot of effort and money to re-open. It also assumes you have local approvals to re-open it.

Option three is building a drive-in from nothing but a piece of land, and it is indeed very expensive and complex to establish. Note that the cost of buying or leasing the land required may in many cases be your single largest cost. There is certainly low-cost land available, but most often the cost is low because the location is very remote.

A drive-in theatre can be a lucrative and fun business venture if you know how to do it right. Build your business plan with the understanding that you may be running a seasonal business. Drive-ins operate generally between April and October in northern locations, as the costs of removing snow and weather make operating in the winter exorbitant.

Estimated Cost of Building a Drive-in Movie Theatre

In this present age, unless you plan on a Summer-only operation in a rural location (as operated in many Snow Belt parts of the US and Canada), you will need at least two screens and a minimum of 8 – 10 acres of land.

Current release movies have contracts that stipulate minimum screening seasons and screening times, so a single screen drive-in may be hooked with a new release movie for 3 weeks or more.

Additional screens allow you to bring in more products and keep your offering fresh, which today’s audiences require. Nonetheless, here are the estimated costs of building a standard drive-in theatre.

  1. Land

The typical drive-in theatre requires between 10-14 acres of land. This should allow up to 500 cars to park at your theatre.

You also need to consider the space required to funnel cars off the road and through the box office. Some localities have zoning requirements in place to prevent traffic from building up along the road or highway leading into the theatre.

  1. Screens

The screens themselves can cost anywhere from $50,000 up to $250,000+ depending on what your local authorities require and the size of the screen.

Note that very few people have the knowledge and expertise to design and build a drive-in screen of sufficient size that will perform well technically and be compliant with local laws. Most areas will require a fully engineered and wind-load compliant screen made of steel and anchored in concrete.

Note that a drive-in screen built today, or in recent decades, is typically 50 to 100 feet (15 – 28 meters) wide. The screen surface (where the images are projected onto) needs to start at least 15ft or 5 meters from the ground depending on the lay of the land.

This is so cars can see past SUVs with open rear hatches parked in front of them. The height of the screen is determined by the width as movies today are produced in two aspect ratios: Widescreen/flat and Scope which have aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 respectively.

Drive-ins don’t have moveable screen masking so your screen is expected to be somewhere between those two aspect ratios. Most were traditionally close to the scope aspect ratio of 2.39:1 with the most common aspect ratio being between 2.0:1 and 2.2:1.

  1. Ticket box building or buildings

Will you sell direct from a single ticket booth window? Will you have two or more entry lanes? Will you use carhops (remote sellers who work the car line)? Will the ticket box selling points be protected from rain or just open?

Note that so many film distribution companies will also require a computer based electronic ticketing system as a requirement to book films from them. EFTPOS or credit card terminals are almost a necessity today at both the ticket box and in the snack bar. If you pick the cash only method you will more or less require an ATM. Who will supply and service it?

Always remember that any new commercial building costs far more to build than what a domestic house of the same size does. Unless you are a builder yourself, you’ll spend hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in erecting commercial food and amenities buildings that comply with local and state regulations.

  1. Projection box/room/booth

This can be incorporated above or next to your snack bar or exist as a separate building. It should be located central to your screens and the number of screens will also determine its size and location.

The throw (distance between the projector and screen) is typically between 160ft (50 meters) and around 650ft (200 meters), but there are exceptions to this where special projection lenses will be required.

However, one very crucial thing to remember is that it is the size of the screen surface NOT the throw that affects your screen brightness. E.g. an 80ft wide screen will have the same brightness if located 200ft or 400ft away from the projector assuming everything else is equal.

The three main cinema/drive-in projector manufacturers today are Barco, Christie, and NEC. These typically cost from $50,000 upwards for a projector with adequate power for a drive-in screen. Used projectors are available but will require a major overhaul to regain the brightness they had when new.

Xenon arc powered units are still in use globally, but laser powered units are gaining in popularity and they come at an even greater cost. Your projection building will also require a server or player for each projector and an FM transmitter to get the sound out to your cars.

Although speakers can be a great option for those who don’t have functioning FM radios in their cars but are expensive to install and maintain.

A supply of portable hire radios are needed for older classic cars and those with non functioning car radios. Many projection setups, especially in larger drive-ins, contain a library or LMS (a larger storage server that is connected to all projectors) and may also be connected to a Network Operations Centre- NOC that monitors your screenings.

Movies, trailers, and ads are delivered in the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) format and can be delivered via truck via a hard drive/USB or via cable or satellite. A basic drive-in projection equipment set-up can easily exceed over $70,000 per screen.

There are a few short-cuts, but unless you can install, diagnose and repair this complex and often factory-sealed highly specialized equipment, expect to spend the money.

  1. Snack bar/amenities building

A typical 500 car drive-in may require up to 8 ladies toilet cubicles as well as accessible cubicles for wheelchair bound customers. You’ll also need a food serving area, a food preparation area as well as refrigerated, frozen, and dry storage areas. You will need a cleaning storage area too.

Have it in mind there is a science to preparing and serving food for a large audience in the short pre-show window before the feature commences. You will need to decide on a serving system; self serves or counters service. You also have to decide what your menu items will be and what cooking and display equipment you will need for it.

What drinks will you offer? Will they be bottled or delivered via a fountain/post mix? How many fryers and grills will you need? How much food preparation bench space is required? Is ice cream or FCB (slushy/slurp) to be offered and who will supply the equipment to produce and store it? What brand and size of popcorn machine will you buy?

Have it in mind that even moderately sized popcorn machines and warming systems can easily run to over $10,000. Quality coffee machines are also expensive. You should never underestimate the importance of your concession area to profitability.

An efficient and attractive snack bar is an investment that will make you money. Conversely, poor designed, time intensive or uninteresting facilities will cost you dearly.

  1. Power, water, sewer, floodlights, and data services

Have it in mind that the location may already have power, but you could be up for hundreds of yards or meters of trenching to get it where you need it. Note that getting power where you want it is less expensive when compared to getting connected to the sewer.

No sewer nearby? Then you may have a challenge getting your local city or suburb to authorize a septic system for hundreds/thousands of people. Water will also need to be trenched into the property as will any data requirements for the internet and phones.

Floodlights are crucial and must light the parking areas before and after the shows. You may choose to mount some floods on the buildings or screens themselves, but at least a couple of stand-alone floodlight poles or towers are almost always best.

  1. Signage, fencing, and landscaping

A roadside attraction sign can range from a simple wooden pointer to a giant illuminated neon construction with the current attractions listed. The budget can run from almost nothing to over $100,000. Fencing is a crucial and expensive requirement.

You’ll require at least a 6ft high chain mesh fence as a minimum to stop easy free access to your theatre and in many areas a solid or shielded fence to stop free viewing from outside the property. You have to budget anywhere from $30,000 to well over ten times this amount.

Landscaping may seem an unnecessary expense, but even the most basic lawn areas need to be mown and maintained. Have it in mind that nothing says that a drive-in is struggling more than overgrown grass and a poorly maintained sign with missing letters.

The rubbish collection should be taken into consideration as you’ll need frequent pick-ups and an area for your large skip or dumpster, plus smaller bins across the property.

  1. Ramps, roads, and access

Formed ramps are quite necessary for drive-ins and are the primary reason that temporary drive-ins struggle. The simple mound of earth that makes a ramp is what angles your car up towards the screen. Note that without ramps the sight-lines can never be as good.

The ramp is still important for rear-seat passengers particularly, as in many of today’s vehicles, tall front seats, rear vision mirrors, and low roof turret design all contribute to difficulty in seeing the screen from the back seat. Ramps require large volumes of road base (crushed rock or aggregate) material to construct; simply scraping existing earth to form a ramp will result in both poor construction and drainage.

Also, note that many areas will require a sealed surface of asphalt over the parking area to comply with local regulations and year-round operation. An asphalt surface is also the single best option for dust and mud abatement.

Internal roadways have to deal with substantial traffic loads and will always need compacted material to a greater depth than that used in ramp construction. Access from the highway or major roadway may also require a slip lane or turning lane.

If not already provided to the property, these can be quite expensive, or you can work with your local road or highway authority to provide safe access to and from the drive-in. In short, even the minimum requirements for the surface of your drive-in can easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars and in larger drive-ins with more onerous requirements, millions.

  1. Other costs

Alarm systems and CCTV/security services should also be factored in. Public liability insurance, building insurance and any local or land taxes – depending on whether you buy or rent the land will all add up. Always allow for continual maintenance and upkeep of buildings and surrounds.

Also note that consultants and professional expertise will be likely be required, as there are very few people that are experts in everything, and almost nobody has the time to do it all. Initial staff/management recruitment and training are also real costs.

What happens if you put money and effort into training your staff and they leave? It’s a far better option than not training them and having them stay!

Note that you may also like to add a playground or other pre-show, non-screen entertainment like coin-operated amusements, mini-golf, or other attractions. Outdoor seating under your screen or near your snack bar is a popular addition.

A maintenance shed is generally required as a place to keep your lawnmower, line trimmers, and other equipment items. Owing to the factors above, you should expect to invest between $250,000 and a million to develop the property including building a projection house, concession stand, sound system, and playground.


The information outlined above provides you with a basic understanding of how complex a drive-in theatre can be. You’ll need every aspect to be built and designed well in order to compete in today’s competitive out-of-home entertainment market.

It’s not impossible to do, but it certainly isn’t the simple business that many people think it is. Now at least you know what awaits if you decide to go down the route of building a new drive-in.