They don’t offer the latest in digital wizardry as Imax theaters do.

They don’t offer eye-popping 3-D or celebrity presentations, such as those served up by the Alamo Drafthouse chain.

Heck, they don’t always feature the latest releases.

But what drive-in theaters lack in pure visual spectacle, they make up for in experience and heart. You’ll get the crackling of earth and rock under tire, the backdrop of an American summer sky and a celebration of something the country cherishes when it’s done right — going to the movies.

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Americans have had a long love affair with drive-in movie theaters. The first drive-in movie house opened in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933, with patrons paying 25 cents for admission (car or person), according to

At their peak in the 1950s, drive-in theaters numbered more than 4,000. By last year, that number had shrunk to just 338.

That decline, however, has not meant the death of the torrid love affair.

At their peak in the ’50s, drive-in theaters numbered more than 4,000.

After drive-ins took a hit when studios required most of them to convert to digital to play the latest summer releases, corporate America took notice. Honda stepped in two years ago to save a handful of drive-ins by financing the digital conversion for select theaters. They chose the winners by letting people vote through the Project Drive-In website.

“Honda saved more than just a handful of theaters — it saved an industry. The awareness Honda brought to the industry helped drive-ins more easily fund raise or get the financing together to make the conversion,” said Ry Russell, who owned the Saco Maine Drive-In while it made its conversion from film to digital as one of the contest winners.

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The restaurant chain Johnny Rockets also pitched in to save the drive-in experience. Last fall, the company teamed with USA Drive-Ins to plan 200 more drive-in theaters by 2018, all serving Johnny Rockets concession food.

With giant outdoor screens seen through potentially foggy car windows, drive-ins aren’t always the best way to watch a movie. The drive-in theater offers other, less obvious advantages.

Most drive-in theaters today are run by entrepreneurs, not by chains.

There’s the communal advantage. While we complain about people’s bad habits inside traditional theaters, drive-ins put the focus on a shared viewing experience (convertibles, pick-up trucks) or a more intimate choice (date night). Cellphones and talking, as you can imagine, are not as big a problem at drive-ins.

“The drive-in is as American as it gets. It’s an experience tailor fitted to individuals. You sit anywhere, whether that’s in your car, on lawn chairs or a blanket on the grass. You decide. Do you want popcorn and soda or dinner? Again, you decide,” said Russell. “There are few rules, and it’s all about what you want. No Imax can give you the freedom a drive-in can.”

Most drive-in theaters today are run by entrepreneurs, not by chains. And while they exist in Canada and Australia, they remain a mostly American phenomenon.

Then there’s the double feature angle, the retro presentation for a nation eager for more than just one film.

The experience is so unique, and uniquely American, drive-ins should forever hold a place in the movie-going experience.