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The unlikely rebirth of the drive-in cinema

Drive-in cinemas were widely associated with cheesy retro romcoms from a bygone era but now, thanks to coronavirus, they’re back like never before.

You may have noticed that drive-in cinemas have starting popping up across the world over the last few months.

2020 has seen our idea of ‘normal’ flipped upside down. Where once we would cram ourselves into packed out stadiums and concert halls, we’re now extremely mindful of coming into contact with too many people. Televised football matches use artificial crowd noises, our restaurant tables are now separated with sterilised plastic sheets, and we’re required to wear masks wherever we go. Worst of all, it’s likely to be standard protocol for the foreseeable future as second ‘waves’ of infection emerge.

All of these new rules have disrupted revenue flows for all live events, including cinema and theatre. We can’t all bundle in together to watch the latest Chris Nolan film anymore and ticket sales have slumped massively as a result. Companies have attempted to create digital workarounds with varying degrees of success, but an unlikely archaic solution is proving popular – the drive-in cinema.

The idea to watch films from your car began in the 1930s when Richard Hollingshead patented the concept and launched the first ‘park-in theatre’ in New Jersey. Tickets to films were 25 cents and cars were positioned at different heights the further back they were, allowing for everyone to get a good view of the screening. A genius move, really.

In 1949 the patent was overturned and drive-in cinemas exploded in popularity. From 1950 to 1958 the number of US cinemas doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 and quickly found popularity with teens. The added privacy of watching films from your own vehicle rather than a public space, as well as screenings always taking place at night, meant they were synonymous with teenage antics and promiscuity.

Shopping centres and the rise of television saw them decline in relevance as the twenty-first century went on. The space required was not as profitable as a standard cinema and soon they were reduced to being a culture reference from an era barely any of us can remember. Until recently the drive-in cinema setting was a relic of cliché rom-coms and 1950s teen stereotypes.

Until this year, however. Now that huge arenas and large spaces designed for thousands of people have become useless, there is suddenly a huge market for drive-in entertainment. Not only does it offer struggling entertainment brands with revenue where there would otherwise be none, but it also allows consumers to get away from their homes without disobeying social distancing measures.

Big names like the BBC are experimenting with drive-ins to recreate the feeling of live studio audiences. It’s recently been filming its flagship show Top Gear using a large outdoor stage in front of 500 fans watching from their cars. All vehicles were at least 2 metres apart and audience members had their temperatures taken. Not quite as relaxed as it was in the 1950s, but still.

Elsewhere, local drive-ins have been created to accommodate for annual film festivals. Edinburgh International Film Festival has launched ‘Drive In Movies’ with seasonal events to keep the spirit of cinema enthusiasm alive. The New York Latino Film Festival is similarly offering drive-ins and virtual options this year.

The biggest film releasing this month is Tenet, which has had a slow and difficult release. Warner Bros is allowing it to be screened in drive-in cinemas across Los Angeles, a first for a new film release in decades. Watching from your car is the new normal and in an age of digital streaming, constant online connection, and subscription services, it seems strangely surreal to be harkening back to a trend from seventy years ago.

The real test will be if these types of screenings will remain popular when things do eventually re-open. My guess is likely not, though with fresh warnings that a worldwide vaccine won’t be readily available for everyone until at least 2024, they may be around for a lot longer than we think.

It is possible that I’ll be rocking up to the Shrek 5 premiere in my mum’s Citroen Picasso in 2023, which is not how I expected to live out my twenties. Still, at least I’ll be helping to keep the film industry afloat in these very trying times.


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