Will drive-in movie theaters soon provide Americans a much-needed night out?

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Gabe Augustine

A nostalgic staple of 1950s–60s America might provide a valuable escape from the current stay-at-home situation if U.S. officials allow it.

Drive-in theaters, once a common form of entertainment here and abroad—mostly in rural areas—are already experiencing a resurgence in some areas of Europe and Asia as people look for safe distractions from the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal guidelines do not specifically mention drive-in theaters, but state governments may choose to allow them to open since they are functionally so different from typical movie theaters. Drive-in movie-goers can easily maintain a safe distance from others outside of their own vehicle.

On April 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was considering allowing drive-ins to reopen while keeping regular theaters shuttered.

“Where is the public safety issue?” Cuomo asked during a media briefing. “You’re in the car with the same people [that you share a house with].”

Perhaps following the same logic, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan said earlier this month that places of worship will not be penalized for holding drive-in services, so perhaps there’s hope for drive-in movie theaters, as well. Inquiries to several Michigan drive-in proprietors for comment have not yet been returned.

In New York, Warwick Drive-In owner Beth Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter that she’s ready to open as soon as the state gives the go-ahead. “We want people to enjoy going out,” Wilson says, “but in a safe environment.”

Girls Playing Cards at Drive In Movie Theater
Gabe Augustine

There are an estimated 320 drive-ins in the U.S., but The Hollywood Reporter says only 25 are currently open. Will more soon follow? And if they do, will people come? Although a potential hurdle could be a lack of new movie releases, that hasn’t affected ticket sales in Germany, where reporter Scott Roxborough recently drove his family to an outdoor show.

“Regular German cinemas, like those across most the world, remain closed due to the coronavirus,” writes The Hollywood Reporter correspondent. “But drive-ins, those anachronistic remnants of a cinema industry from a generation past, are packing them in.”

Roxborough says Autokino Essen, one of only two year-round drive-in theaters in Germany, “has sold out every screening since the country went into lockdown in early March. On April 6, it sold 500 tickets for Manta Manta, a German comedy that was a huge hit… in 1991.”

Frank Peciak, manager of Autokino Essen, told Roxborough that “it doesn’t matter what we show, people just want to get out and watch a movie.” The movies sell out weeks in advance, he says.

Roxborough writes that Autokino Essen is also booked solid. To maintain social distancing, only 250 cars are allowed into the 1000-car lot.

Drive In Theater Lot Filled with Classic Cars at Sunset
Gabe Augustine

Makeshift drive-ins are also popping up. According to Roxborough, a cinema in the German town of Marl “found an open lot behind a biker bar and put up a 640-square-foot LED screen.” Opening night on April 6, featuring The Lion King and Parasite, sold out in hours.

South Korea is also reporting similar stories as people clamor for entertainment options. And Brian Allen, president of Canadian drive-in chain Premier Operating, told The Hollywood Reporter that he’s hoping his country will soon follow suit. “[It’ one of the] very few places where people can assemble anymore,” Allen says.

Considering the first movie projector developed in the U.S. was demonstrated on this date in 1895—125 years ago—maybe that’s an omen. Here’s hoping that health and government officials soon agree that the timing is right. Seems like a classic activity in which to enjoy your classic car.

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