By Sean Zucker –
Drive-in movie theaters could turn out to be the real victors of the COVID-19 lockdown. What was once an ode to 50’s cinema and culture may return to be the first and possibly only safe option of seeing movies outside of the home. Ultimately, as social distancing restrictions begin to be slightly lifted while the fear of crowded public spaces remain, experts predict a renewed interest in this classic American viewing experience.
The popularity of drive-in theaters, in fact, has already surged in recent weeks for a variety of physical and mental health reasons. Drive-ins appear to offer a safer public environment than stores, limited-seating restaurants and bars, beaches, barber shops and gyms, among others, with the added benefit of not having to wear a mask while perched in your car. It also provides a much-needed and liberating mental health boost for the house-bound where they can feel safe to enjoy a bit more in the wider world. Some professionals even go as far as to claim that going to a drive-in may turn out to be a more enjoyable movie-watching option.
Notably, the recent rise of drive-in movie theater popularity has been demonstrated at the box office. For the third straight weekend, IFC produced horror movie The Wretched led the domestic box office earning $85,000, according to Variety. The movie, which was only screened at 45 drive in theaters throughout the nation, has been May’s top grossing release in the states, raking in over $350,000 according to IMDB’s Box Office Mojo. The film itself incidentally follows many drive-in movie tropes, including a goofy horror premise featuring a teenager suspecting his neighbor of having supernatural abilities, with the teenage adventure of Fright Night, creepy atmosphere of Jaws and gory body horror of The Thing.
The New York Times recently covered one of the more successful drive-ins of New York in Warwick, a town roughly two hours outside of Manhattan. According to The Times, on May 15th the first Friday after Governor Cuomo cleared the reopening of drive-in theaters, the three-screen establishment saw such a demand that it had to turn some cars away.
But for those who stayed, the screenings of Trolls World Tour, Bad Boys for Life and Jumanji: The Next Level were a refreshingly return to normalcy. The New York Times reported some patrons saying being able to go to the movies and interact with people made them feel human again.
NBC News conducted its own report on the returning retro activity, referring to it as the hottest quarantine pastime. The report on the Four Brother’s Drive-In in Amenia, New York featured several interviews with moviegoers less interested in the films shown than excited to be having a night out interacting and socializing even from the confines of their cars.
So how does the experience differ from a standard theater? Many outlets have long touted the drive-in as a unique, if not superior, film viewing destination. In 2017, Insider suggested drive-in’s represent a communal experience unavailable at the local Megaplex. Additionally, it pointed to the comfort of sitting in your car, without the pressure of remaining quiet. With enclosed windows, viewers are free to discuss films while they show without disturbing others.
Travel + Leisure chimed in, referring to the grassy theaters as a great old school method of taking in multiple films in a night. The magazine listed a few establishments across the states with their own unique twists on the classic set up, demonstrating the venue’s versatility.
With most of the country reopening to some capacity, the question remains whether drive-ins will remain the premier outlet for the movie going public or if Americans will feel comfortable returning to standard enclosed movie theaters without risking their health. According to The Ringer, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is set to open on July 17th and its release will be watched closely to gauge the public’s comfort with returning to standard theaters.
As the sole major summer blockbuster to not reschedule its release, the film’s release carries the burden of either reigniting the box office sales or reinforcing fears that the public is not ready to flood back into traditional theaters. Observers worry that if Tenet bombs, the film industry could be set back months or even years.
Of course, there’s another possibility. A box office smash that rakes in huge sums from both traditional movie houses and drive-ins could cement outdoor movie watching as a vintage experience that’s been brought back to style.