The drive-in movie theatre is the hero we need right now

“All through my life what I’ve loved is watching movies. I love the escapism of film”Keira Knightley

For over a century, the cinema has allowed audiences the chance to escape for a couple of hours. To leave their everyday lives behind and explore faraway galaxies and strange new worlds. To go back in time and discover ancient civilisations. We can laugh, we can cry, we can experience the full spectrum of human emotion in the safety of a darkened cinema auditorium and know that others are sharing in the experience.

Sadly, with the world’s cinemas on lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, it seems that this experience is for the moment out of reach. It was as if someone pressed pause on the entire industry last week, as distributors pulled their films from the release schedule and independent cinemas and chains alike were forced to turn the lights off for the foreseeable future.

The decision, though wise, marked a monumental loss at a time when escapism is exactly what the world needs. We are constantly being bombarded with doom and gloom via the news, friends, family and social media, and the appeal of escaping into a good movie is all the more enticing.

Sure, we can still watch movies at home, whether it’s streaming online or sticking a Blu-Ray… but it’s just not the same. Watching a movie in the comfort of your own home is fine, but there’s always the possibility or temptation for distraction, be it checking your phone, making a cup of tea or spending hours deciding what to watch.

The cinema gives (most) people the opportunity to switch off from the outside world. Put their troubles (and phone) to one side for a while and immerse themselves in another world.

It can also bring people and communities together. Remember the scene in Cinema Paradiso when the majority of the town cannot get inside the fully booked cinema? The projectionist improvises a way to project the film into the town square so everyone can enjoy it.

So how can we look to bring that back in the current climate?

Streaming services like Netflix are seeing an increase in subscribers. Disney+ will launch at the perfect moment, with schools now shut to the majority of pupils and with parents looking for something to occupy their children with.

Social media is also proving useful in bringing people together virtually, using recommendations and hashtags to arrange #NetflixParty mass viewings. However, it can only stay that way so far before the social distancing and self-isolation results in a series of Marriage Stories or freelancers and film critics going full-Jack Torrance stuck in The Overlook Hotel.

When it comes to the movies, it is that tactile, human connection that we desire, and one that social media cannot replicate. The answer may lie in an old American tradition… The Drive-In Movie Theatre!

UK audiences’ memories of drive-ins may be limited to seeing them in films such as Grease, The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Twister but in America, the drive-in movie theatre was an institution throughout the 1950s. Car ownership was on the rise following the end of the second world war and the home television set was not yet an everyday item. The drive-in offered American teenagers the chance to indulge in two of their favourite pastimes: driving and watching movies.

In 1958, there were over 4000 drive-ins across the United States which offered a cheaper alternative to the regular cinema, as the running costs were lower. The 1980s saw the decline of the drive-in, with households now able to afford televisions and with the introduction of the home video market. People preferred the comfort of their own home to the back seat of their car, plus it was cheaper and more convenient to stay in.

Image by Cindy O from Pixabay

Jump forward to the 21st century and by 2018, only 300 drive-in theatres were reported to still operate worldwide. Hampered by the industry moving from 35mm to digital projection, many sites were unable to justify the cost of switching formats with ever declining attendance numbers.

However, in this unique time and incredible set of circumstances, the drive-in finds itself as the potential and unexpected saviour of cinema.

The delivery format can allow for audiences to enjoy watching a movie together yet still be mindful of others and employing social distancing by staying within their own vehicles.

Cinema-going audiences have already expressed interest in outdoor screenings and event cinema. The Rooftop Film Club has been operating for several years now and offers the chance to view a classic movie on top of a building in London, projected onto a screen with the sound delivered to them via Bluetooth headphones.

Secret Cinema has become a huge hit and premium event cinema programme, offering an interactive movie experience before the main event. In 2015, they screened Back To The Future outdoors in a pop-up Hill Valley near the Olympic Park to hundreds of film fans every night over Summer.

The UK does not currently have any dedicated drive-ins, but outdoor screenings are nothing new. There are several companies out there able to provide audiences with the chance to experience a pop-up drive-in for the evening. Using a giant inflatable screen and digital projector, the film is screened in a public space (quite often a car park), with viewers tuning in to the audio using headphones or their car radio.

Live Cinema UK are currently offering their services to independent cinemas to organise a series of pop-up drive-in movie nights. 

To offer local communities the chance to escape their social distancing and self-isolation for a couple of hours and simply watch a movie could be a huge benefit in the weeks and months to come. Something that, up until last week seemed so commonplace that we perhaps took for granted.

Perhaps we may see a shift to the construction of the outdoor meccas to film as a replacement for the modern multiplex, especially if cinema giants such as Cineworld or Vue don’t survive the bleak Midsommar. Sounds like the plot to a summer blockbuster actually, doesn’t it? A former hero who was shunned by the society that created him rises from the ashes to save us all.

The drive-in might not be the hero we deserve but it is the one we need right now. A watchful guardian. A silent protector. A Dark Night Out!