Four lanes, 20 cars deep, advancing quickly as if at a toll booth. “What movie? How many?” a worker asks, while dad hands over some cash. More money than it cost in the 1950s, when the Ford Drive-In opened with one screen, but still cheaper than most family outings. Now there are nine large screens dotted in every direction in the vast pea-gravel and dirt-rutted field.
The movies won’t start for some time. Darkness must fall first, but young families still arrive early to encamp for an evening of fun. Picks-ups and station wagons—the modern types with automatic hatches—back into the spots. Lounge chairs come out, or blankets draped over the roofs of older cars. Then the footballs and frisbees fly while parents help younger kids stay out of the continuing influx of cars.
As the stars alight, mom treks with the kids to the concrete structure planted in the middle of the field. Cash registers ring up orders. One extra-large buttered popcorn will round out the snacks brought from home. As they walk back the screen lights up, and a dancing hot dog takes center stage in a nod to the nostalgia of the setting.
Outside the activities wind down, with only a few movie-goers continuing to chat. But unlike the brick-and-mortar mega-plexus, no one minds. Those seeking an undisturbed dialogue retreat to their cars where modern soundproofing and sound systems tuned to the frequency listed below the large screen provide the perfect listening environment: the annoying antics, chatter, and cell phones of the modern theater experience locked outside the family car.
While few drive-ins remain in operation today, the coronavirus may prompt a resurgence across America, as it would take but a few tweaks to create a movie-going experience consistent with social distancing. Even when the country returns to normal, it may take some time for families to shed the infection-control protocols on which they subsisted for months.
Hollywood would be wise to consider this reality if it wishes to turn around the devastating box office tallies—reportedly just a hair over $5,000 for the last week in March. Plus, a campaign to make drive-ins great again might play better in the heartland than A-listers crooning to the country that they just need to “Imagine” the world as John Lennon did.
Darrell Landers, the founder and CFO of Ultimate Outdoor Entertainment, which rents portable drive-in movie screens, is making that pitch, according to an interview last week with Neil Cavuto. While Landers’s business typically rents the inflatable outdoor screens that range from 45 to 75 feet for university movie-nights or corporate events, he sees pop-up drive-ins showing first-run movies a good transition back to life as we knew it.
While the parking-lot version of the drive-in cannot completely replicate the nostalgia of historic drive-ins, the modern twist offers its own memories, such as the hired acrobat dressed as Spider-Man for the premier hosted several years back in a tony town some miles from the industrial locale skirting the Detroit border of the Ford Drive-In.
Similar pop-up “theaters” could provide a promise of normalcy to Americans desperate to escape home confinement, yet too timid to return to the tightly squeezed stadium seating most theaters offer today. And families might just realize the drive-in really is the way to see a movie—and make memories along the way.
Cities hoping to revitalize and attract visitors should take heed too. People will be looking for outings that allow for companionship and comradery, but with a sense of space. The after-hours abandoned parking lots of public buildings provide a perfect locale for a temporary weekend drive-in theater. Wise city leaders could coordinate with local restaurants to turn the event into a “dinner and a movie” theme, with pre-ordered meals delivered car-side.
Hopefully, business and government leaders are using the next month not just to fight the coronavirus and to react, but to plan for our emergence on the other side. When this unmatched catastrophe ends, what Americans will need some good, clean, old-fashioned fun—exactly what the drive-in offers!