Pandemic, in park: Viewers pull up to drive-ins again

Why We Wrote This

For many, pandemic life has been filled with unsettling firsts. But around the U.S. and the world, people are finding some cozy comfort in a decades-old idea: the drive-in.

John Minchillo/AP
Jayden Deltoro (left) watches "Trolls World Tour" at the Four Brothers Drive In Theatre, May 15, 2020, in Amenia, New York. Innovators are looking at the drive-in model as a way for people to experience live events without being elbow to elbow.

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On a recent Saturday night, vehicles spread out among three screens at the Rustic Tri View Drive In in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. Flatbed trucks transform into sleeping-bag forts for kids in pajamas, and attendees discover that face masks aren’t impervious to the tantalizing smell of fried dough.

First-timers Jill and Bill Harris brought their three children to see Pixar’s “Onward.” “We can sit outside and talk if we want to,” says Ms. Harris. “You really can’t do that in the theater.”

The drive-in, a medium that has waned since its heyday decades ago, is suddenly at the forefront of pop culture again. Beyond the nostalgic allure of movies under the stars, innovators are looking toward the drive-in model as a way to experience live events now that people can no longer stand elbow-to-elbow. At least temporarily, audiences may end up in front of vast screens for concerts, sports, and even theater.

“We’re theater people, we’re creative people,” says Michael Duran, producing artistic director of BDT Stage. “We should be able to figure out a way to bring theater to the people and still be able to stay safe.”

When Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer stepped onto a concert stage in late April, he wasn’t greeted with cheers and clapping. He was welcomed by the honking of car horns. 

Around 500 vehicles gathered to watch the pop star perform in a field in Aarhus, Denmark, that had been hastily transformed into a drive-in hosting rock shows and screening movies. Mr. Langer performed on a newly constructed concert stage beneath a massive screen that relayed video of the show. Sound was streamed via FM radio. 

Before the coronavirus crisis there was only one drive-in theater in the Scandinavian country. Now they’re popping up all over.

“I’m starting a small drive-in tour,” says Mr. Langer, whose itinerary includes a stage and screen erected in the parking lot of Copenhagen’s international airport. “For me, this whole thing is really about trying to be creative and rethink ways of doing stuff that everybody has been doing for a long time. So it’s becoming an adventure.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall. 

The drive-in, a medium that has waned since its heyday decades ago, is suddenly at the forefront of pop culture again. It’s an attractive option for watching movies while practicing pandemic-related social distancing, with demand high from coast to coast. But innovators are also looking toward the drive-in model as a way to experience live events now that people can no longer stand elbow to elbow. At least temporarily, audiences may end up in front of vast screens for not just films, but also concerts, sports, and even theater. For many people, cars congregating for a collective experience under the stars offers a nostalgic allure. 

“A drive-in is very democratic,” says Joe Bob Briggs, host of “The Last Drive-In” on AMC’s Shudder streaming service. “The drive-in is usually on the edge of the city. And the people who live in the city drive out to the country to be at the drive-in. And people in the country drive in towards the city to be at the drive-in. ... It’s a festive, communal place.” ‘

A venue with many uses 

Social distancing is a boon for the outdoor screens that remain in the United States. Some 305 locations were still in operation in 2019, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Until Hollywood offers new releases again, drive-ins can still attract moviegoers with retro fare such as “Jaws” and “Back to the Future.” Owners are also considering other entertainment. In Lockport, New York, the Transit Drive-in Theatre is lobbying to show live prime-time NFL games featuring the nearby Buffalo Bills. Promoters are also besieging drive-ins with offers to stream live entertainment events. There’s a precedent: In 2014, Jimmy Buffett played a show beamed exclusively to drive-ins across the U.S.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Dave Andelman, co-owner of the Mendon Twin Drive-In, shows the upgrades that he has made May 7, 2020, in Mendon, Massachusetts. His face mask, with a cartoon hotdog, is one of many that were custom-made for his employees, who swing back into action on Memorial Day.

“Free markets fill vacuums very quickly,” says Dave Andelman, co-owner of the Mendon Twin Drive-In in Mendon, Massachusetts, which plans to open on Memorial Day. He envisions the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship having ideas. “Dana White from the UFC will say, ‘OK, we’ll put it on the biggest card we ever put out.’ ... There’ll be boxing, there’ll be concerts, there’ll be comedy.” 

When drive-in theaters aren’t readily available, entrepreneurs are building their own pop-up versions. In the German towns of Schüttorf and Düsseldorf, night clubs this month assembled stages and screens in their parking lots for raves in which the clubbers waved glow sticks out of car windows and flashed headlights in time with the beat. On June 1, the Danish soccer club FC Midtjylland is planning to use two large screens in its 2000-space parking lot so that fans can watch games being played inside the empty stadium. Similarly, a dinner theater company in Boulder, Colorado, is examining the economic viability of projecting a musical production from its stage to a phalanx of cars outside.

“We’ve got these big vast walls on both sides of the theater and we could hook them up with an FM receiver from a soundboard inside the theater,” explains Michael Duran, producing artistic director of BDT Stage. “We’re theater people, we’re creative people. We should be able to figure out a way to bring theater to the people and still be able to stay safe.”

Another idea is to turn drive-ins into actual concert venues. Already bands in Mesa, Arizona, and Fort Collins, Colorado, are planning such events. And Houston’s Showboat Drive-In is gearing up for a DJ event in which masked dancers must stay within the width of their car – the strictest social distancing since high school proms in the 1950s. 

“I had one promoter talking to me about essentially leaving a big stage setup here, basically all year,” says Mr. Andelman during a tour of his 16-acre drive-in highlighting the social distancing procedures it has instituted. His face mask, with a cartoon hotdog, is one of many that were custom-made for his employees. “Bands and the comics are itching to get out and do their thing,” he says. “The vibe of those events will be amazing.”  

Working overtime

John Vincent, president of the drive-in owners association, reckons that zoning laws and a thicket of onerous regulations will make it difficult for many new drive-ins to spontaneously sprout up in the U.S. Existing drive-ins are already working overtime as it is to institute practices and procedures to make their facilities safe during the pandemic, including reducing capacity by half. 

On a recent Saturday night, the new embrace of these venues is on display at the Rustic Tri View Drive In in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. A phalanx of 200 vehicles spreads out among three screens, an extra space between each one for social distance. As the sunset embers behind the silhouetted tree line, flatbed trucks transform into sleeping-bag forts for kids in pajamas. Attendees discover that one thing face masks aren’t impervious to is the tantalizing smell of fried dough. In a carefully spaced pickup line outside the snack bar, many express relief at getting outside their homes. Some haven’t been to a drive-in in years – or ever. First-timers Jill and Bill Harris, who brought their three children for a double feature that includes Pixar’s “Onward,” conclude that they like the drive-in better than theaters.

Mikkel Berg Pedersen/Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters
Cars are parked in front of the stage where Danish singer-songwriter Mads Langer performs at a sold-out drive-in concert at Tangkrogen, a public park in Aarhus, Denmark, April 24, 2020.

“We can sit outside, and talk if we want to,” says Ms. Harris. “You really can’t do that in the theater.”

That’s something that’s long been an allure. “You have this shield around you on all four sides. But the fact is nobody wants to stay in the car at the drive-in. ... Everybody gets the lawn chairs out,” says Chris Willman, features editor for Variety and a longtime drive-in devotee. He notes that if you want to have minimal contact, “you can go and never get out of your car. Slip your credit card through a crack in the window right at the gate and that’s all the exposure you have all night.”

In the Northeast, the sold-out Tri View Drive In was among the first venues permitted to reopen. While waiting for “Onward,” Cristen Spinella sits in a camping chair outside her car and plays Mexican train dominoes with her boyfriend. Lamenting the suspension of concert-going, her favorite social activity, she says she’d “definitely” attend a gig streamed at a drive-in. For now, the pharmacist is more than happy just to see a movie during the pandemic.

“It’s outside, so it’s a breath of fresh air,” says Ms. Spinella. “Hopefully people who’ve never been to a drive-in or have written it off, maybe will really fall in love with the drive-in and start coming again.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the location in the dateline to Mendon, Mass. As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall. 

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