Is the Drive-in Theater Back?

Milford Drive-in Theater

In January, I went to see a high school basketball game with my cousin and I got a great idea. In the summer, we should drive over to Sacramento, pick up her brother, and go to the West Wind Drive-in Theater!

She didn’t immediately take to the idea because she knows the kind of movies that I like. But I explained that we would see a “normal” film. There would (sadly) be no Blood Feast playing there anyway.

And then the pandemic started and I despaired of getting to do this. But I shouldn’t have. Drive-in theaters may end up being big winners from this crisis.

Childhood Memories

Many people have noticed that drive-in theaters are kind of pre-social-distancing.

A large percentage of my memories from childhood involve movies: on television, in the theater, and at the drive-in. I especially remember my older sister sticking my younger sister and me in the trunk of the car to save money getting into the drive-in. It seems that everyone did that — to the point where theaters started just charging by the car.

One of my earliest memories was going to the drive-in to see The Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes with my friend George and his parents. I must have been 6-years-old. George fell asleep, which still shocks me. He missed the reveal of the people who worship the bomb!

When I first went to grad school, I went to the drive-in a number of times. I remember seeing Dick Tracy and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Technological Changes

By the 1980s, most drive-ins had switched from physical speakers to FM broadcasting. So the sound when I saw these films in 1990 was fine. The visuals, however, were not. They were faded out — a lot like those illegal DVDs people used to sell that had been video-taped during a showing of the film.

I’m happy to hear that the drive-in theater industry eventually addressed this problem. In recent years, theaters have been converting to digital projection. Sadly, this is going along with the consolidation of the industry because this technological change is expensive. So we are seeing a lot of chains, like West Wind that I discussed earlier.

Pandemic Movies

The movie industry has adjusted to the pandemic by releasing films directly to streaming. And that’s great! (I guess it’s great; I almost never see new films.) But people still like to make movie-going an event.

And I suspect soon the theaters will open up. I don’t see a problem if precautions are taken. (It’s interesting that airplanes are filling up but movie theaters aren’t. I’m not saying either should go back to normal but I see a distinct class element here.)

But many people have noticed that drive-in theaters are kind of pre-social-distancing. Sure: there might be some issues at the snack bar and the bathrooms. But these can all be managed. For example, some theaters are offering food service at cars.

And while all the indoor theaters around me are closed, you can still go to the drive-in. At the San Jose drive-in, they are showing a bunch of well-designed double features. For example: ET and Jurassic Park. But they also have new films: The Hunt and The Invisible Man.

Temporary drive-ins are opening up. I just read about two in the Chicago area. Another in Maryland. And Colorado. And these are just some that have been reported on in the last day!

I really don’t know if drive-in theaters will ever again be more than nostalgia for old people like me. But changes in the technology are a good sign. The indoor theater doesn’t offer me much. I’m thrilled that the drive-ins near me are playing double-features. I don’t expect I will ever prefer the drive-in to my home theater. But if they were equally accessible, I’d definitely pick the drive-in over the indoor theater.

And not just for nostalgia.


Milford Drive-in Theater by Laxbot7 under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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