After parking your car at the Twilight Drive-In and scoping the lot, it's clear that you've entered some sort of, well, twilight zone: kids bundle up in soccer-mom vans, dogs sleep in front of dusty licence plates and sniff each others' butts during the intermission, and, in keeping with tradition, there are steamed-up windows. It's the Twilight's first summer in operation, and so far the Lower Mainland's only drive-in theatre is doing a bang-up job of re-creating yesteryear's iconic moviegoing experience”” betrayed only by the billing, which features first-run Hollywood flicks, and the great stereo sound coming in through the car radio.
In the late 1950s, there were 242 drive-ins across Canada””about a dozen of those in the Lower Mainland””but their numbers dwindled as property values soared and the comfort of living-room sofas and video players trumped that offered by bucket seats and screens the size of double-decker buses. As of 2004, just 54 drive-ins were in operation across Canada. Now there's only one in the Lower Mainland, located deep in Langley along the Fraser Highway at 260th Street.
Some might flee from those odds, but not Jay Daulat, who opened the Twilight last September. “They did not die for lack of attendance,” he told the Georgia Straight over the phone from the projection booth just as The Benchwarmers was starting. (His sons man the box office and his wife runs the concession stand.) It simply became more profitable for the large movie conglomerates to open multiplexes, he explained: “They just abandoned that segment of the industry and left it to the small guys like us.” That might have been a mistake. According to the latest Statistics Canada motion-picture theatres survey, drive-ins had a profit margin of 11.5 percent in 2003, just over 2.5 times that of regular theatres.
The Twilight may be new to the industry, but Daulat, who emigrated from Trinidad in 1965 at age 19, is a veteran. The 60-year-old has worked at movie theatres since he was 23. The Twilight marks the fifth movie theatre that he and his family have owned. They used to run the Plaza downtown but found it hard to compete with the multiplexes, which got first dibs on the best films. “We had to take what was left over,” he said. “We found it very, very difficult to do that.” So when Odeon put Surrey's Hillcrest Drive-in up for sale, Daulat and his family decided to give it a try. The supersized single outdoor screen, the furthest cry from a multiplex around, worked well for them. “In the drive-ins, we have no difficulty. We are unique, dis- tinct; we get all the shows that we want.” They ran it for nine years until their landlord sold the property for $3.5 million in 2003.
Daulat didn't want to quit the business. So instead he quit being a tenant and bought a plot of land along Langley's industrial zone for the Twilight. There was some NIMBY griping, and local concerns that the drive-in would encourage teen deliquency, but he finally got the go-ahead. After some hitches with construction, the six- by 12-metre screen opened for business last September. “The support from the community has been very, very good,” Daulat said.
The tiered 468-car lot is packed most weekends. Double bills start at 9:45 p.m. on school nights, and depending on your stamina, you can stay for the entire triple bill on weekends””yes, that does mean it finishes around 3 a.m., and, yes, that does mean you get to watch three flicks for the $11 admission. The Twilight is open February through November, but no doubt summer is the best season for it. Still, in typical Vancouver style, Daulat screens in the rain: “You just have to keep your windshield wiper going.”