Recently declared an Oscar-qualifying venue, drive-in theaters have been the film industry’s unexpected—and sometimes only—creative focal point this year. As cold weather sends most of them on seasonal hiatus, we look back at moviegoers’ newfound fascination with the venue, how tech enabled its spread and whether or not this year actually helped them out.

Zoom panels are no strange thing these days. But joining one from your parked car, following your movie’s premiere and seeing it projected on the drive-in screen in front you is … illustrative of the movie world in 2020. 

That was Dave Franco and Alison Brie’s experience this summer, when their horror film The Rental premiered at the Vineland Drive-In outside Los Angeles. Forced outside by the closure of indoor screens, the team exchanged formalwear and mics on a red carpet for sweaters and iPads in their sedan. 

“Standard premieres are a bit more formal, [but] I love how casual this night was,” debut director Dave told The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. “It’s this unique communal experience where you can be comfortable in your own space but still feel the infectious energy of those around you. There was definitely a palpable energy in the air.”

Photo from “The Rental” screening at Vineland Drive-In via The Hollywood Reporter. Credit: Tasia Wells

Social distancing kept guests safe from coronavirus at the Vineland that night, but it didn’t stop everyone in Hollywood from catching the drive-in bug. Thanks to both necessity and nostalgia, this year saw a proliferation of special movie events on outdoor screens.

Studios withheld new releases, but they opened up their vaults. Many of the 300-plus permanent drive-ins across the U.S. essentially became summerlong throwback festivals: Jurassic Park, Jaws and The Empire Strikes Back dominated box office returns for months, a scenario one really could never have seen coming at the start of the year. 

Gaps in the calendar left by vanishing 2020 titles like A Quiet Place Part II and No Time to Die presented the opportunity for even more unique programming. Series like Michael B. Jordan’s “A Night at the Drive-In” descended on a handful of lucky locations nationwide (Amazon footed the bill and made the multicultural screening series—Black PantherDo the Right Thing, Crazy Rich Asians, among others—free to the public). Jordan, too, had the bizarre experience of Zooming onto the screen from his parked car to intro Creed, and co-star Tessa Thompson joined in remotely.

Other drive-in spectacles were slightly more makeshift. The festival circuit, for one, rolled up its sleeves and built temporary outdoor venues. The New York Film Festival descended on a lot outside the Bronx Zoo, a pier in Brooklyn and a field in Queens, where Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks premiered. Lots outside Pasadena’s Rose Bowl became home to pop-up screens for AFI Fest’s One Night in Miami and Telluride’s Nomadland. At the premiere of the latter, actor Frances McDormand encouraged alternate forms of audience engagement, telling guests: “Blink your lights [and] hold your phone up like a lighter at a rock concert.” They did that, and more: Hardly a minute went by at the distanced, post-screening Q&A without horns erupting, the COVID-era applause. Moderator John Horn noted, “I think we should have cars at every screening moving forward, including indoors.”

Behind the scenes at the “Nomadland” drive-in premiere

Quality exhibition: Not just an inside job

Outdoor screenings popped up by necessity, yes. But perhaps they’ve also been so well-received because the technology there no longer lags so far behind indoor. Sound is transmitted via FM radio at drive-ins, but the days of scratchy sound from muffled car speakers may soon be over. For the Tribeca Drive-In—a pop-up series in New York, Florida, Texas and California this summer—tech behemoth IMAX stepped in to offer some of its indoor expertise and up the audio ante. 

“Normally, studios do a stereo mix for drive-ins—a trimmed down 5.1 surround sound that is flattened to left and right. At the Tribeca Drive-In, we wanted an improved way to do audio, so we remixed the track,” Academy member Bruce Markoe, who is a senior vice president at IMAX and oversees all things postproduction, tells us. “We worked with [audio tech company] DTS to create an encoded stereo mix. So, if you had a newer car—with multiple channels and multiple speakers—the new mix took advantage of those capabilities and played a pseudo-5.1: enhanced sound, almost surround sound.”

Even where the IMAX expertise doesn’t yet reach, things are sounding and looking great. With older cars, FM radio smartphone apps can sidestep subpar speakers and play the movie audio through iPhone or Bluetooth speakers. For daytime viewing or screenings in urban spaces, LED walls are a vibrant way to cut through the lack of controlled lighting. And the permanent screens—many outside city limits—that could afford the expensive, early 2010s conversion to digital projection have remained competitive with indoor cinemas because they too can project crystallized images. If you’ve been lucky enough to be at a suburban or rural drive-in since then, you’ve probably noticed how brilliant the right movie looks against a pitch-black sky full of stars.

Pop-ups for the people

All of this is now so attainable that folks with no previous ties to the film world have jumped right in. In light of the pandemic, drive-ins became one of the only creative and communal ways by which companies could connect with their own audience—and they brought in new moviegoers along the way. 

Just look at the creative team at Woodlands Nature Reserve near Charleston, South Carolina. Nature-based entertainment has always been the reserve’s philosophy, but when social distancing restrictions went into place, owner Holland Duell looked to “pivot from densely concentrated music festivals, to a way people could still come out to camp, kayak and enjoy some sunshine.” 

Drive-in movies proved to be the perfect lure. Tickets to Drive-In-the-Woods (priced at $40 per car) quite brilliantly included a day pass to the 6,000-acre reserve. Eventual moviegoers were invited to first explore all the nature they could before the lights—or, sun—went down for showtime.

“None of us have ever put on a drive-in movie before,” Vince Iwinski, the music and events manager at Woodlands, tells A.frame. “But we announced the program on a Tuesday, and by Friday our first screening of Beetlejuice was sold out. So that was kind of an indicator that there was demand.” 

The popularity of drive-ins outside of usual exhibitor and moviegoer circles reveals that they likely served a greater purpose this year. As Holland confesses: “Though we brought in the movie, what we were really doing was bringing people into a natural atmosphere where you could breathe fresh air, where you could be very spaced out, soak up sunshine, eat healthy food, exercise a little bit—all the things we know that are so good for you especially right now. Better spaced out than stressed out.” 

Aerial shot of the Drive-In-the-Woods at Woodlands Nature Reserve in Charleston, SC. Photo by Stuart White

The ‘resurgence’ illusion

So much new activity, so many headlines. The future of the drive-in must be guaranteed, right? The publicity drummed up by all these spectacular pop-ups and creative programming series, however, doesn’t promise anything for next year. 2020, and 2021, come with their own unique set of business parameters for the country’s couple hundred permanent locations.

“Everybody’s talking about the resurgence of drive-ins because of coronavirus. Yes, and no,” Paul Geissinger tells A.frame. Paul owns Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre in Pennsylvania, which opened in 1934 in Orefield, PA, and remains the oldest operating drive-in in America. Paul was a projectionist there in the ’70s when Star Wars premiered, and, as it happens, is back now as owner to see it play again during the 2020 lineup of re-screened classics.

The crowds are loving the nostalgia, but is business booming? “The film companies have been real partners, providing content that people want to see, and at a very reasonable film rental. But [in Pennsylvania] we can only do it at half capacity,” says Paul. That is to say, everything has shrunk since the pre-COVID days of new studio releases: film rental costs, yes, but also attendance. Shankweiler’s is thrilled to be staying afloat in a year when that’s anything but promised, and can only hope audience interest in nostalgia doesn’t fatigue next year, should new release titles continue to be delayed.

Paradoxically, states with the highest number of drive-ins (Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana) are also some of the coldest; freezing winter temperatures there create a seasonal industry. The box office at large will, for a few months, lose a sizable portion of the country’s 300 reliable drive-in locations (and the roughly 550 screens they come with)—ones that have been stable against the ebbs and flows of indoor chain closures. Hopefully, that doesn’t sting too much. And, if the crisis remains when screens thaw out in the spring, hopefully studios and drive-ins can continue to see the other as an interdependent, creative partner.

Header image taken by Nate Christenson at the Utah Film Center’s Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival in Salt Lake City. Click here for more images from the festival.