Drive-in movies are proving popular in a pandemic—just like 70 years ago

Happy days, sort of.
Happy days, sort of.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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The call for the return of drive-in movie theaters has been a popular refrain on social media for obvious reasons. If we’re using our cars for socially-distanced drive-up nose swabbing, wedding parties, and worship, why not bring back the original car-based form of collective entertainment?

The thing is, it’s already happening, if you know where to look. Last month, the New York Times documented a resurgence of drive-in theater activity in states across the US. And the Atlantic has published evocative photos of families packed into their cars or squeezed together in open hatchbacks at drive-ins found not only in California and Florida, but also Germany and South Korea.

The films they’re showing aren’t necessarily new, but that hasn’t hurt business; in pandemic times, the old rules for box office success don’t apply.

Indeed, this isn’t even the first time that we’ve turned to drive-in theaters for their built-in respect for social distancing during a public health crisis. As Food and Wine’s Naomi Tomky reports, drive-ins originally appeared in the US in 1933, more than two decades before the first polio vaccine. In the 1950s, when outbreaks of polio became severe, some drive-ins boasted that their venues were the perfect place to be “flu and polio protected,” plus there’d be no “babysitter problem.”

Some marketing messages of the time spoke to parents fearful of exposing their children to disease epidemics. This brilliant pitch allowed drive-ins “to expand their reputation from ‘passion pit’ to family entertainment,” Tomky writes.

(As it happens, drive-ins reached peak popularity in the US in the late 1950s, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. In 1958, there were 4,063 drive-in theaters in the country.)

Now that restaurants have been forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic, they too have begun jumping into the drive-in revival, putting up massive inflatable screens in their parking lots (which is why Food and Wine is even paying attention).

Some, like The Butler House in Houston, have arranged “date-night worthy events” according to Tomky, like “Vintage Nights,” which pair old films with wine tastings. Other places go for all-ages events, screening Ghostbusters or Smokey and the Bandit, like one taco spot in Omaha.

For traditional drive-ins, there may be signs of a well-timed renaissance in the works. Some larger chains are making the most of new technology to enhance a night out that’s also “in.” And in Florida, Spencer Folmar, CEO of Veritas Theatres, has proposed a $1 million “destination complete with camp and RV grounds, restaurants, and shops” in his native Eustis that would all be centered around a Guinness Book of World Records–verified world’s largest drive-in, if it gets the green light from local authorities.