Resurgence of drive-in theaters is one silver lining for film business during pandemic

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Drive-in movie theaters are making a comeback during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by GoToVan (CC BY 2.0).

With movie theaters shut down and people longing to get out of the house, there’s a revival of drive-in movies. The 67-acre Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre in Montclair, California was founded in 1953, and now it has become a bastion for moviegoers during the pandemic.

Chris Lee, movies reporter for Vulture, visited the Mission Tiki recently. He says it was packed.  

He describes the visitors: “They said, ‘We don't care what movie is playing. We just want to get out of the house. We just want to basically have a collective cultural experience being out here.’”

People are sitting in their own cars, but they show up as a group, says Lee. “It’s usually a group of friends, or maybe two cars will pull up together, and they’ll pull out some folding chairs and then have an al-fresco picnic. There is a togetherness that is implicit,” he says. 

Drive-ins operate a bit differently now than in the 1950s. Back then, small speakers clipped to visitors’ cars, or were affixed permanently to a parking spot. Today, visitors can tune their car radios to an AM or FM station, which then broadcasts the movie audio. Lee says that experience is communal: “You can hear everyone laughing or cheering or gasping all at the same time in accord with what's going on the screen.”

Before COVID-19, drive-ins were struggling economically. Only 305 drive-ins still currently operate in the U.S. The pandemic, however, has exposed at least one silver-lining for the business. 

“There’s suddenly this unexpectedly robust business. People that were worried that they were going to go out of business with drive-in movie theaters are suddenly having some of the most robust profits in recent memory.”

Drive-in theaters are also home to a new attraction: drive-in concerts. Musicians like Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins are using drive-in theaters as outdoor venues. They’re performing for hundreds of fans in cars.  

Lee says the resurgence of drive-ins is surprising, but it fits the current global moment.

“It's such a relic. It's such a quaint afterthought. When you think about hte movie business and the billions of dollars that are generated, you just don’t think about showing up in your car anymore. But it’s a wonderful thing to do. … You're automatically social distancing. You don't have these concerns about disinfection or hygiene,” he says. 

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Credits

Guest:
Chris Lee - movies reporter for Vulture/New York Magazine

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Kathryn Barnes