The Other Big Screen: Is There Value in the Drive-in Theater Today?

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– By Joe Campbell –

At least once a year when I was a kid, my parents would take me and my younger sister to the local drive-in movie theater.  After picking our prime parking spot, my dad would unhook the middle double seat of our minivan, place it next to the car, break out the blankets, and crank up the car radio.  Surrounded by trees and cars, back hatches open and the sound of the movie emanating from every car in the open field, it was a unique experience we always looked forward to.

But the drive-in was never our first choice when it came to theatrical entertainment, despite the cheaper tickets and the fact that you got two movies for the price of one, and we rarely made the trip there more than once a year, spending most of our movie money on the local indoor multiplex instead.

Year after year, more drive-ins have been closing down as IMAX screens, Atmos sound, and reclining seats have made indoor theaters more attractive.

But now it’s 2020 and we’re currently living in a COVID world.  Depending on where you live, indoor theaters are still closed and even if they are open you might not feel comfortable cramming into an enclosed space with a crowd of strangers, even with health precautions in place.  Drive-in theaters have been allowed to operate as a safe alternative, and after months of being cooped up at home, they’ve been touted as the savior of the theatrical experience when more blockbusters are starting to be released digitally instead.

Amid this revival, the recent release of Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender Tenet has brought drive-ins under more scrutiny.  Always the champion for the most up-to-date theatrical distribution, Nolan has fought for Tenet to be released in theaters so it can be seen on the biggest screen possible, without digital distribution.  But Warner Bros. has also decided that Tenet won’t be shown on drive-in screens in markets where indoor theaters are still closed.  One presumed reason is that drive-in theaters are considered to be a lesser experience to indoor theaters, and of course Nolan would prefer his newest feature to be seen in the best possible venue.  This then raises the question: exactly how worthwhile is the drive-in theater today?  Is there a place for it in today’s world of luxury indoor theaters and home theater setups as a legitimate rival for the theatrical experience, or should drive-ins be left to be considered a novelty for the occasional summer night?

First thing to consider is that drive-ins aren’t quite the nuts and bolts antiquated venues they used to be.  They sport high quality digital projection and massive screens.  Because the projector is so far back, they have to use specialized bulbs more powerful than your typical theater to reach the screen.  Technically drive-in theaters are up to date with state of the art equipment.

The actual experience can vary.  There are just too many factors when considering the drive-in to definitively put my foot down one way or the other.  The screens may be huge, but if you park too far back it may look like you’re watching it on your phone.  In my multiple trips to the drive-in this year I have yet to go in a downpour (the one time it did rain, we sat in the back of our SUV with the back hatch open, so we barely noticed) but I can’t imagine watching a movie through windshield wipers or a dirty windshield is an ideal experience.

A lot of the quality also depends on your vehicle.  Most (if not all) of the drive-ins left have done away with the exterior speaker you hook onto your window in favor of playing the movie’s audio through your car’s speaker system via FM radio station.  How good your audio will sound is ultimately dependent on the quality of your in-car speaker set-up, or the speakers you bring with you.  I’ve personally never had a problem with the sound at the drive-in.  The fact that I’ve never actually considered the audio quality until writing this article shows that in my experiences, it works.  If things are too quiet, I just turn up the volume, simple as that.

There’s no sugar coating it: indoor theaters are in a controlled environment and even with everything coming together it’s unlikely that strictly from a quality perspective you’re going to have a better visual and audio experience at the drive-in.  That being said, when Bill and Ted Face the Music opened within the past couple weeks, I made the trip to the drive-in as opposed to renting it online because it was a clear night and I was able to get to the theater early enough to grab a nice space (two or three rows from the front is my preference), so watching it on a massive outdoor screen beat watching it on my TV at home where I was at the whim of poor video quality due to compression and buffer times.

Drive-ins are notable for one aspect that indoor theaters will never be able to replicate, and I would argue it’s the reason they’ve continued to last in pockets even before the pandemic: the atmosphere.

There’s a real sense of community about going to the drive-in, and it’s the sort of community I welcomed over the past few months as we’ve all been social distancing.  It’s a place you can go with the family, even small children, or chat with your partner about the movie and not risk ruining the experience for fellow moviegoers.  I don’t know about most drive-ins, but mine tends to be one of the most diverse places in the area, each car an insular community telling a different story.  Maybe you’ll find yourself next to the van of an enthusiastic family or a couple in a 1970s Oldsmobile some young man borrowed from his dad.

In a year where we’re all sectioned off in our own protective circles, and the internet has become more contentious, the drive-in can be a place for people to come together while staying safe.  The week of George Floyd’s death, and amidst the ensuing violence and anger that occured in its wake, I found hope in going to the drive-in and finding people of all races and backgrounds laughing along to Spaceballs and greeting each other across the space between cars.  Out among the stars we were all there to celebrate what we loved, and enjoy the company of those close to us away from the confines of our home.  That was a much-needed experience of hope and connection I never would have gotten at an indoor theater, where once the lights go down we’re all in our own little worlds.

Although drive-in theaters are enjoying a brief moment back in the sun, they aren’t likely to catch on as a comparable replacement for indoor theaters anytime soon; for the best sight and sound in a controlled environment, you aren’t likely to beat your local cineplex.  However, on a clear night the drive-in is a far sight better than your home theater setup is likely to be, and the community to be found there is something I think we all could use from time to time.  I hope the drive-in’s brief moment in the spotlight will help new patrons discover it, and perhaps they may consider frequenting it from time to time in the future even when indoor theaters are open.


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

Click here for more articles by Joe.

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