Seven years ago, PJM’s Paula Bolyard wrote about how drive-ins were going the way of the dodo, and it was kind of a shame. “Drive-in theaters are woven into the fabric of American culture — at their peak in 1958 there were over 5,000 drive-ins in the U.S. Many couples and families have fond drive-in memories — they evoke images of the past, when Americans were unplugged from technology and the entire family could spend an evening sitting in the fresh air in lawn chairs (or a beat-up car) enjoying a movie for a reasonable price.”
As rare as drive-ins are, I’ve actually been to one relatively recently—if you consider 2006 to be recent. It was a different, but fun experience and it was kind of sad to think that this piece of Americana was becoming extinct. The drive-in we went to closed about five years ago. I don’t know how many are still left, but there were a few in my area that have long since closed. Their gigantic screens remain in place, albeit in disrepair, standing as monuments to this American pastime.
One lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that we need to bring them back. According to an article at MovieNewsNet, bringing back drive-ins might just be the last hope for the theater industry.
This unprecedented shutdown is likely to continue sending waves throughout the movie industry at large for the foreseeable future. Almost all theaters (and their 40,000 screens) have been forced to indefinitely close, and so most new films have either been pushed to the fall, delayed to next year, or simply dropped on streaming sites or VOD. An eventual decline in sales amid the rise of streaming has been predicted for years, but it wasn’t thought to happen in such a fell swoop. Theater owners have done what they can to keep their employees afloat during this time, but their hands are tied to stay closed and keep people safe. Unfortunately, this sacrifice could be the proverbial nail in their coffins.
As many as 25 percent of movie theaters could shut down by the time the crisis is over. The answer to reviving the industry could be the return of drive-ins.
Drive-ins have quickly been turning up and getting attention across the country. St. Louis will be playing cult classics at a pop-up theater. A small-town drive-in has committed to remaining open in Central Florida. An EVO chain theater outside of San Antonio even retrofitted its parking lot to be a temporary drive-in for its loyal community. Cars are parking 10 feet apart as an extra precaution. Concessions are ordered online and delivered to cars. Many drive-ins are reporting increased traffic regardless of coronavirus concerns. Stories like this are coming from all corners of the country, and it makes perfect sense.
Even the article admits that even if drive-ins come back their revival could be shortlived. But the opportunity to bring that experience to a new generation could potentially give it new life beyond the crisis. As much as technology has made it easier for us to deliver the entertainment we crave right inside our homes, we still desire experience-driven entertainment. As Paula noted in her post, lots of people have fond memories of going to drive-ins with their families. And, of course, couples have enjoyed the relative privacy of the drive-in theater as well.
Drive-in movies have the potential to be appreciated by a new generation the same way young people who grew up with compact discs appreciate vinyl records. If there’s something truly special about the medium, and I think many people would agree there was something special about drive-in movies, then it has a chance to make a triumphant return.
Matt Margolis is the author of Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama’s Legacy and the bestselling book The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis