The Deadline on Potter’s Numbers

Yesterday, Deadline Hollywood, the blog generation’s antidote to The Hollywood Reporter, announced some rather remarkable opening numbers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2:

  • 3,000 3D locations, comprising 4,250 3D screens
  • 274 IMAX venues
  • 120 premium non-IMAX large format venues
  • 270 drive-ins

According to Deadline, the above numbers are all industry records (and they keep increasing as the studio adds additional screens).  But I was skeptical enough after seeing these numbers to email Deadline Editor in Chief Nikki Finke with my concerns.  After all, 270 seems such a small number for drive-ins, considering that at their peak, they numbered more than the total number of 3D screens that the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar, opened on a few years ago.

Surprisingly, though, Deadline’s number may very well be accurate as an industry record.  Even though in the mid to late 1950’s, there were between 3,500 and 5,000 drive-in screens in operation domestically (numbers vary by source), for most of their existence they have suffered the same problem that a number of IMAX theaters have had to deal with over the past decade – studio clearances on the distribution of first-run films, designed in such a way as to protect business relationships with existing conventional cinema clients.

In his excellent book Drive-In Theatres: A History from Their Inception in 1933, Kerry Segrave writes:

“Reasons cited by the distributors for not altering their stance included the fact that ozoners* were seasonal; while drive-ins might return higher revenues in some situations, the overall loss might be greater; suburban location drive-ins broke up geographical servicing of the theaters; drive-ins could play successfully after regular theaters while the reverse might not be true; and drive-ins were limited to automobile owners and exclude nonowners.”

In 1950, Chief Judge William Kirkpatrick of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled on Milgram vs. Loews, Inc., a landmark case in Hollywood distribution and antitrust law.  Kirkpatrick ruled in favor of Milgram, a drive-in operator near Allentown, PA, as he sued the eight major distributors of the time for the right to bid for first-run films on the same terms as his conventional cinema counterparts.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Kirkpatrick’s decision in favor of the drive-in owner and when the distributors appealed to the Supreme Court, the high court refused to hear the case at all.  Segrave points out that despite the court rulings,  studios initiated tactics, such as switching from flat rate licensing fees to ever-increasing percentages on box office, to continue to lock out drive-in operators from booking first and even second-run films.

However, while discussing this matter with my colleague Michael Coate, a contributor to Wide Screen Review and former co-editor of, he came up with another possible reason why the Potter premiere could be a record:

“There was no shortage of independently-produced and/or distributed product during the 1960s & 70s that kept drive-ins in business.  Exploitation films probably got more ozoner bookings than hardtop… But typically the entire country wouldn’t open a film on the same date back then, so perhaps a film might have a couple hundred prints that would play a region at a time.  So maybe the Harry Potter 270 figure is right.  I doubt it, though.  I would think that by the 80s, when 1,500-2000 print run openings were the norm AND hundreds of drive-ins were still open, that something during that time would hold the record.   I know the ’78 re-release of ‘Star Wars’ had more than 270 drive-in bookings…but maybe that doesn’t count because it was a re-release.”

Whatever the reason, the fact that more than 50% of existing drive-ins will be showing the new Harry Potter film on opening day is an indication that studios have finally embraced this niche as an important part of the American movie-going experience.

*On June 6, 1933, the first drive-in theater, Richard Hollingshead’s “Automobile Movie Theatre” opened in Camden, NJ.  The patent awarded for his concept listed the invention as “Drive-In Theater.”  Reporting on it, Daily Variety, using their proprietary slang, refered to the theater as an “ozoner,” and the name has stuck within the industry for both drive-in theaters and those attending them.


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