(TMU) — For many Americans, the drive-in movie theater is an icon of nostalgia—even for millennials and younger generations who may not have even visited these bygone cinematic venues.
Drive-ins were a cherished past-time in the 1960s, allowing people to watch films projected onto a big screen while safely chilling in their private cars. However, a number of different factors ranging from the availability of color television, VCRs, and video rental shops contributed to the decline of drive-in theaters.
Fast forward to 2020, and movie theaters across the country have been served crushing blows by the coronavirus pandemic and shuttering of non-essential businesses. The release of such highly-anticipated films including James Bond’s No Time to Die, Wonder Woman 1984, and Mulan have been pushed back while over 40,000 screens across the country have gone dark for an indefinite amount of time.
The crisis is forcing industry leaders AMC and Cinemark into dire financial straits, with the companies mulling bankruptcy or mulling the sale of an enormous amount of corporate debt. Some analysts believe that a quarter of the nation’s theaters could close down for good in the course of the sharp economic downturn dubbed the “Great Lockdown” by the IMF.
The situation faced by the industry is forcing many to look to a revival of the drive-in theater experience as a viable option that allows moviegoers to be entertained in large venues while upholding the physical distancing guidelines laid out by state authorities.
Time to bring back drive-in movie theaters.
— Zach Graumann🧢 (@Zach_Graumann) April 18, 2020
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a daily coronavirus briefing that drive-ins could soon open in the state, reports New York Post. The governor said:
“Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theater. You’re in the car with the same people.”
There are currently roughly 320 drive-in theaters across the United States with only 25 open for business, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
And while Americans are desperate for some diversion and recreational outings, they appear to be content, for now, with streaming options like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Ticket sales during the crisis have been “steady but not spectacular,” according to The Post.
While drive-ins may have that old-school charm, marquees are just as musty and old—many theaters rely on the classics to sell tickets while the flow of new Hollywood films dries to a trickle and summer blockbusters face an indefinite delay.
It’s a great turn out for the 5:00 PM drive-in movie at Northern Cass tonight. pic.twitter.com/DuY2ucTqJA
— Cory Steiner (@CorySteiner10) April 15, 2020
Overseas, however, crowds have been absolutely flocking to drive-in theaters. In South Korea and Germany, people are even lining up to watch films, with crowds flocking to see both older titles and relatively newer ones.
In Germany, which has only two year-round drive-in venues, open-air theater Autokino Essen has managed to sell out every screening since the country’s lockdown began early in March.
Frank Peciak, manager of Autokino Essen, said:
“It doesn’t matter what we show, people just want to get out and watch a movie … We’re sold out weeks in advance.”
In Cologne, another drive-in theater is also completely booked. The theater allows only a quarter of its 1,000-capacity lot to be used in order to uphold physical distancing rule.
Meanwhile, pop-up options have proliferated to keep up with the demand for entertainment outside the home. Loe Studios, an independent theater in the town of Marl, began screening films on a 640 square foot LED screen it put up behind a barker bar. It’s premiere offering was a double bill of “The Lion King” and “Parasite” which promptly sold out in a matter of hours.
A Moment for Drive-In Movie Theaters – 19 images of movie-goers enjoying big screen entertainment, while remaining safely apart, in South Korea, Germany, and the U.S. https://t.co/LvbJRqwMWq pic.twitter.com/6zbIaNpn6J
— RaminSubzero (@RaminSubzero) April 22, 2020
Heiko Desch of theater chain Drive
“In the beginning, the authorities were worried there might be a health risk … but we haven’t had any issues.
“People are told to keep in their cars, except to visit the restrooms, and the entire operation is hands-free.”
Meanwhile in New York, theater managers like Warwick Drive-In owner Beth Wilson hopes that her upstate drive-in cinema can have its nonessential restrictions waived.
“Whatever the state wants us to do, we’re willing to do.
“We want people to enjoy going out, but in a safe environment. If you’re in your car with an average family — two parents in the front seat and two kids in the back — you’re sitting in a car with people you’re with in the house. It’s a little outing.”
However, if drive-in theaters reopen across the U.S. to satisfy demands created by the pandemic, we might witness their rapid decline once the crisis subsides.
Either way, most of us are hoping that we can catch a good film alongside a vibrant audience sometime in the near future.