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Film in the Time of Coronavirus: The Return of the Drive-In Movie Theater

Ah, the automobile. The four-wheeled machines have been a refuge for us for a long time now. With the pandemic in full swing, vehicles are becoming all the more attractive.

For the foreseeable future, cars will allow us to travel while planes, trains, and large boats are mostly sidelined. Turns out, the auto coach is also our ticket back to the movie theater as well.

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Drive-in theaters are sprouting to life all across America. It’s a pretty rational phenomenon, given a car’s ability to secure social distancing protocol and keep family bubbles from popping. They combine two things we desperately need right now in entertainment and a good reason to leave the house. And they’re showing up everywhere from wineries to giant stadiums.

One of the largest drive-in theaters just opened in Miami. With sports mostly still in hiatus, Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins, pivoted to cinema mode in late May. It’s set up to host some 230 cars and has been screening classic movies as well as vintage football from Dolphins’ 54 years as a franchise. Snacks and beverages are available via an online ordering system. It’s unknown yet what the 2020 NFL season will look like but this move will at least bring in a little cash while people are still engaged in social distancing.

Other drive-ins have been at it since the experience was first popularized back in the mid-20th century. In Newberg, Oregon, the 99W Drive-in has been screening movies since 1953. Named after the north-south highway it’s just off of, the venue opened with the movies Sea Devils and Under the Sahara. Today, it continues to show double-features, starting around dusk during weekend evenings every summer.

At the Drive In
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Over the course of its almost 70-year history, the 99W Drive-in has gone through a couple of screens. The original was blown down by the powerful Columbus Day storm of 1962. Allegedly, some of the establishment’s marquee letters were blown half a mile away. The second screen fell victim to another bout of inclement weather in 1990. The third screen remains today.

Part of its many charms is the vintage atmosphere. Sure, newer films are shown, but 99W specializes in a bygone era. The concessions are old time-y and the sound is pumped through a low-fi FM signal via your car radio. Even better, the drive-in is known to show old trailers and snack ads from the 50s and 60s during intermission.

Up in Washington, Blue Fox Drive-in is currently treating motorist viewers to Minions and Uncle Buck. The place is operating at reduced capacity to ensure the health of visitors but it’s as popular as ever, if not more so. There’s heavy sanitizing going on, at both the theater’s shared facilities like the snack bar and restrooms as well as the go-karts along the neighboring track. 

An estimated 300 drive-in theaters exist in the U.S., from Virginia’s Family Drive-In to West Wind in Sacramento. That number doesn’t include the many pop-up installments that have come about since the pandemic erupted. Wineries and other businesses are taking advantage of screen-like walls and adjoining parking fields or parking lots to project movies and attract customers. The situation has inspired people to create their own theaters in their backyards, mostly without cars but with the same open-air enjoyment that’s tied to the drive-in experience.

Abandoned drive-in movie theater
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It’s hard to beat a visit to your favorite local movie theater but with the one-two punch thrown by streaming services (amid what’s arguably the golden age of television) and COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine the industry ever really recovering. Yet, clearly we still crave the assembly and shared viewing experience involved in movie-going. It would have been hard to predict the drive-in theater’s renaissance even a year ago but here we are — confused, exhausted, and looking for feel-good activities.

How do you drive-in? There’s no right or wrong way, technically, but we have a few suggestions. Be sensitive to outside food policies but where allowed, pack in your own goods. Conservas are great and an easy, packable option with tons of variety. Pack a few pillows and blankets so you can get comfy in the back of your car (or, on top of it if it’s really nice out). Bring a mask and some sanitizer as you may need to use shared facilities, and be cognizant of how you park and situate yourselves so those behind you can still see. And, just as you would at the cinema, put your phone on silent.

Long live the drive-in.

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