Not surprisingly, the drive-in theater business, long on the skids, is making an amazing comeback, thanks to Covid. Pop-up drive-ins, such as one occupying the parking lot of the Bel Aire Diner in Queens, are all the rage. You can buy a Pulp Fiction Slider and fries, then return to your car and eat it while watching a movie from the lot, keeping the diner in business and satisfying your and your family’s need to just get out of the house. Kal Dellaportas, one of the principals in the enterprise, was thinking, “How can we bring people in, without bringing people in?”A friend just told me about one such operation at a mall in Dayton, Ohio. The place is mostly dark these days, but there’s a screen, with cars lined up in front, courtesy of some enterprising folks. In this case, local food vendors in trucks just sorta showed up.
Drive-ins and social distancing have been linked since the get-go. A New Jersey-ite, Richard Hollingshead invented the drive-in movie theater in 1933, apparently because his generously proportioned mother was shy about going out in public; she didn’t fit easily into a traditional theater seat, so he made it possible for her to stay in her automotive shell for the whole show! It caught on, though. Who else besides a shy woman might want some social distance? Drive-ins, for decades, afforded couples the privacy they longed for, especially before bucket seats made erotic experiment tricky. Later on when those couples had children — noisy, hard to keep in their seats — the local drive-in, which charged by the carload, reduced the price of admission, but also the need to shush squirmers. By the nineteen fifties the landscape of the lower 48 was seeded with over four thousand outdoor movie screens, and the fad caught on elsewhere, even as far away as India.
What I’m wondering is if the resurgence will disappear after we finally wrestle this pandemic to the ground? Or will people’s social habits have altered so completely, that clustering in cars (and, yes, boats) will be the new norm? I’m sure the proprietors of original working drive-ins, such as The Electric Dusk Drive-In in L.A., screening The Great Lebowski this coming weekend, and the Mahoning in Lehighton, Pennsylvania (Reel Rumble Weekend, on the 14th and 15th, with “all-out wrestling under the stars...and a tag-team of classic films to follow...” will do just fine, buoyed up by all the additional attention they’ve been getting. We will come back to life as it was, slowly and over time, having learned a lot. Meanwhile, the drive-in theater business will have gotten fat and healthy. Add to that, perhaps, the boat-in business.
1. For more on the history of drive ins.
2. Beyond Cinema isn’t the only event organizer to come up with the idea of float-in movies. A “Cinéma sur l’Eau” — or cinema on the water — is coming to the Seine River in Paris this weekend. Individuals, too, are increasingly flocking to the waterways, buying boats in lieu of their usual summer plans, which are now tabled as a result of COVID-19.3. For what it’s worth, Walmart has gotten into the drive-in game What does this tell you about how lucrative that game could be?