Drive-in movies make a comeback as coronavirus kills the cineplex

The cineplex may be irreversibly dead, but the drive-in with its retro charm and fresh air may have found a way back into our hearts.

Now that we’re well into coronavirus lockdown retro is all the rage: cooking, home schooling, canned food, and cocktails. Children have been universally expelled from the public schools, proving that the work/home split always had an expiration tag. And now that the regular theaters are closed and likely to stay shut indefinitely, staying in is the new going out. Yet ta promising turn has been that the drive-in movie theater has been given new life in recent days, and it’s not hard to see why.

For those who don’t remember, or never knew, there was a time when it was very popular to watch films projected outside on a massive building size screen, instead of in dank, dark cineplexes.

The heyday for these drive-in theaters was the 50s and 60s. Contrary to popular myth they were not risqué places for teenagers to practice their night moves but were marketed as a getaway for families with young kids. Clearly piggy backing off of the innovative fast food drive through window, the drive-in theater was one place you could “go out” and simultaneously “stay in” because you didn’t have to leave your car.

Families could go to the movies in their PJs if they so desired. In other words, if say a plague were to arrive and the government forced everyone to isolate from society, it’s an easy and convenient way to go out while maintaining social distancing. Hence the current Phoenix-like rise of the drive-in from the ashes of the 20th century.

Though there were a handful of drive-ins still in operation they functioned more like retro curiosities than serious mainstream businesses. With the close of virtually all standard theaters those few drive-ins that remain account for a large portion of the very tiny box office draw that still persists in the face of the coronavirus crisis, according to pymnts.com

“The box office take for all U.S. titles last weekend was $260,000 — a roughly 98 percent decline from this time a year ago. All in, according to recent estimates, there are fewer than 500 movie theaters open for business, and roughly 60 percent of them are drive-ins, which have remained mostly exempt from local bans on opening affecting movie theaters.”

At the height of the drive-in movie craze there were approximately 4,000 theaters operating in the US. The prevalence of television was what killed them, just as internet media has in turn killed television. But what nobody saw coming was that a worldwide pandemic might, however briefly, breathe new life into a virtually dead industry.

It is truly dreary to have to stay at home all the time. Especially when you consider how much easier it is to access any and everything in the wider world right now, no one else is out hence everything is less crowded. The entire planet is like Disneyland on Super Bowl Sunday, no lines cause everyone is carbo loading in front of their TVs at home.

The drive-in fits into this scheme perfectly. Because if you actually do go out you will almost certainly run into another quarantine violator, but that hardly matters if you’re in your car and they are in theirs. And lots of families decided to take advantage of this retro entertainment in recent days.

While this brief resurgence may end up being shut down by authorities who are intent, however nobly, to shut down everything they possibly can, it’s safe to say that when we are allowed to finally go back out to the movies this will be a much safer option. The cineplex may be irreversibly dead, it’s unclear how any of the large theater companies will survive this crisis, but the drive-in with its retro charm and fresh air may have found a way back into our hearts.

The drive-in isn't the only retro revival. There's also the fact that vinyl records have seen sequential years of growth in sales since 2006. No one could’ve predicted that. In a world where it’s possible to buy turntables and LPs at Target it may also be possible that the future of cinema is outdoors standing 75 feet tall.