The Case for a Drive-In Theatre Comeback

Drive-in front (New York Post)

Moviegoing is a unique experience — it’s the opportunity to immerse ourselves into a story. We make our way to the big screens for an experience our streaming platforms can’t provide. It’s something about that theatre popcorn and silver screen that allows ourselves to become one with the film.

The theatre offers many of us some of our fondest memories. Maybe, it was a theatre that became your local hangout. Was it here you had your first kiss? Or your trip to the movie theatre made you realize you had a fascination for film.

It’s fair to say the theatre experience is a fundamental institution to American society. Film is there for us to paint the pictures of stories we dare to tell, and a trip to theatre provides an escape to hear from our storytellers.

Movie theatres continue to adapt to new technology and cultural norms as they have for centuries. The theatre I’m here to fight for is the drive-in. The drive-in movie theatre reached its peak in 1958, and has continually faded out to almost extinction today. You’ve probably seen photos of these operations — the large screens in fields with rows of cars lined to watch the film. The image of this setting probably provides a sense of nostalgia, as most of these photos picture Bel Airs and El Edurados, with families enjoying a night out at the movies.

Yes, drive-in’s glory days were set in a culturally different time, but our cultural norms just shifted into third gear when COVID-19 broke out.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaped our lives in unimaginable ways, and it won’t be over anytime soon. We’re all familiar with terms such as social distancing now as we’re told to steer clear of large gatherings and remain six feet apart; these guidelines pose serious threats to the entertainment industry. Today’s movie theatres house hundreds of patrons, all within close proximity, and theatres have begun shutting down across the country. Viewers are now being left to stream from their homes, and the moviegoing experience is dying.

It would be absurd to allow this institution to fade from American society. We need to revitalize the experience of moviegoing, and drive-ins is the best solution going forward. COVID-19 will shape our lives for the foreseeable future, and drive-ins are the clearest solution to preserving the moviegoing industry through this pandemic.

It’s clear we’re going to be practicing social distancing for an extended period of time. Drive-ins offer the precautions that allow us to practice social distancing while enjoying the film. Our cars alone provide protective barriers between us and others, and the small amount of drive-ins that remain open today are already encouraging cars to properly distance as well. Providing a space for people to socially gather while practicing these precautions is important, because Americans will simply not lock themselves away at home for years to come.

In a LA Times article from 1988, Malcom Green of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners spoke on trend of drive-ins fading at the time. One of the factors he brings to attention is the faded novelty of automobiles. As public transit became more prominent, and we were spending less time in our cars, it’s true that America lost its way in the novelty of our automobiles. I believe this pandemic is going to reshape the automotive industry. Americans are understandably going to be hesitant in taking public transit for the coming years now, and private transportation will be viewed as far safer. More Americans will be using their vehicles, and the automobile industry will respond accordingly. Providing drive-in theatres allows Americans to use their automobiles to safely gather and enjoy their film.

As the economic tolls hit, however, Americans will rely on our institutions more than ever. Movies are good for people, because movies offer escapism for people. In troubling times of economic downfall, films broaden our views, and allow us, even if for an hour of our day, to enjoy the moment. James Surowiecki from the New Yorker argues in ‘Movies Really are Recession Proofthat films are recession-proof and that in tough economic times they offer escapism and become the escape from work and home that people need in these times. Turning our backs to films and the industry during a difficult time will hurt Americans when the institutions they find joy in are stripped from them.

When it feels as if society has almost hit the pause button, we all turn to art. You’ve probably picked up a few shows during quarantine and are catching up with all the award winning films from recent years. It’s art that fuels our minds to remain creative and pose us to think larger during these troubling times. Film does just this, and allows us to escape and think broader, and that escape is possible with the theatre. The moviegoing experience has allowed us the opportunity to enjoy ourselves while remaining mobile.

There’s a good chance your hometown had a drive-in at some point. A simple Google search can lead you to fascinating articles about the history of your town’s drive-in. The Broadway Drive-In was my town’s drive-in theatre until the early ’70s. — it’s now a parking lot for a grocery store.

Times certainly changed then, but they will most certainly change again soon, and we can’t leave the moviegoing experience behind as we move forward.

Missourian, student /// I just write about whatever I want to.

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