Long before the days of coronavirus-inspired social distancing and self-quarantine, there was a time when countless families, groups of friends, and couples regularly enjoyed the movie-theater experience in a bubble of their own making, free to consume whatever snacks they brought with them, certain they wouldn’t have to interact with anyone else watching the movie around them.
It was the era of drive-in movie theaters, and if that bygone time in cinema is ever going to get a sequel, this could be it.
The impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has left Hollywood reeling, and each day of the ongoing pandemic brings news of more movie productions halted and release dates postponed — occasionally without any future premiere date specified. Various state and federal governments have set restrictions on public gatherings in order to slow the spread of the virus, and dire warnings have been issued about the danger of gathering anywhere in large numbers, with movie theaters offering a prime example of the sort of venues to avoid.
While the evolution of home theater systems and the proliferation of streaming media offers plenty of relatively palatable options for self-quarantined movie fans, there might be some value in looking to the past for anyone who wants the communal theater experience without the increased threat of a highly contagious, debilitating viral episode. Yes, the time of drive-in movie theaters might have finally come around … again.
At present, more than 300 drive-in movie theaters remain active throughout the U.S., offering a place for moviegoers to screen new releases and classic films from the comfort of their cars. There, they are simultaneously sealed off from their fellow audience members while experiencing what happens on screen right along with them. (In New York, for example, six drive-in theaters open seasonally within a 60-mile radius of the state’s capital in Albany.) While the number of drive-in theaters nationally has shrunk dramatically from the more than 4,000 that existed in the 1950s, there are still many out there offering an experience that’s both nostalgic and — given the current state of things — a safer alternative to the traditional theater experience.
The business of making movies is in uncharted waters right now, as there’s never been anything quite like the coronavirus pandemic in the modern age of cinema. Streaming video is quickly becoming a major economic force in the industry, but the foundation of Hollywood’s business model is still rooted in films’ theatrical runs. A big-budget flop can set a studio back in major ways for years to come and cost a lot of people their jobs, regardless of whether the film’s success (or lack thereof) had anything to do with its content.
An extended period of time that keeps audiences out of theaters could have a disastrous effect on more than just the studios’ bottom lines. It can hamper the ability to invest in lower-profile projects that might have been funded by a tentpole film’s success, as well as limit studios’ willingness to give riskier projects a chance.
there’s a very real chance that movie theaters could become ghost towns at best, and dangerous hot zones of infection at worst
If the coronavirus outbreak becomes the multi-month affair that experts fear it will, there’s a very real chance that movie theaters could become ghost towns at best, and dangerous hot zones of infection at worst. All of those movies banking on big opening weekends in March, April, and even May could have a problem, and so could the studios and filmmaking teams behind them.
Drive-in movie theaters, however, might offer a solution.
The typical drive-in theater season begins in the spring, with many theaters scheduling their first screening in April or May. The timing couldn’t be better for studios to rekindle their appreciation for these nostalgic holdovers, and with a little collaboration, create a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Consider, if you will, a scenario in which a film that had its traditional, theatrical debut postponed now becomes available to watch at a drive-in theater in advance of its (possibly uncertain) theatrical premiere. The film would be able to earn some money early on, and possibly generate some additional positive buzz ahead of its eventual arrival in traditional theaters. It would also offer a novel experience for moviegoers who abandoned drive-in theaters long ago or have never had such an experience, while also serving up a much-needed boost to the locally owned small businesses that drive-in theaters have become.
With so few drive-in theaters available, it’s also unlikely that the movie would experience any appreciable drop in opening weekend numbers when it does finally premiere. In the end, the viewing experience ends up being both communal and virus-free, which feels like a victory all around.
Sure, it’s an extremely unlikely scenario, given movie business politics and the mountains of red tape wrapped around every major film these days, but it’s certainly nice to ponder — particularly if you’re the sort who’s concern regarding the spread of the coronavirus only slightly outweighs your love for the communal movie-watching experience.
While we’re probably not going to see major movie studios line up to embrace the mom-and-pop institutions that drive-in theaters have become any time soon, that doesn’t mean you should cross drive-ins off the list when investigating ways to combine watching a movie, being social, and avoiding the coronavirus (or any other nasty pestilences, for that matter). At a time when streaming is poised to become the most popular it’s ever been, drive-in theaters provide a tempting alternative to movie-watching in isolation, and a happy medium between experiencing a big-budget spectacle on your family television and playing a role in the viral apocalypse.
Just make sure to bring plenty of hand sanitizer. You can never be too safe.
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