Insights & Advice

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The drive-in returns

There is not much good one can say about the coronavirus, but if one looks hard enough there are a few silver linings. One of which is the revival of the drive-in theatre.

Cinemas have been closed for months, thanks to COVID-19, and are only now re-opening to limited audiences. In the meantime, consumers have been surviving on streaming movies and television series for entertainment. However, one bright spot for those who can take advantage of it, has been the drive-in theatre.

It is well-suited for a country in a pandemic, and ready-made for social distancing. At many drive-ins, autos are parked at least six feet apart. Ticket holders do not need to wear a mask as long as they stay in their cars.  If you want snacks, your food is brought to you. In a society that is just aching for a night out, the drive-in offers family entertainment in a safe, responsible setting. What more could you want?

Usually, I’m not one for nostalgia, but I make an exception when it comes to drive-ins. The drive-in is a uniquely American invention first established in Camden, NJ back in 1933. It was the brainchild of the manager of a sales parts store, Richard Hollingshead. Over the next three decades, the concept caught on, driven also by the invention of  audio speaker technology for in-car use in 1941.

By the time I was ten years old, back in 1958, drive-in theatres hit their peak with more than 4,000 locations in the U.S.  Living in Pennsylvania, it became a staple of my family’s week-end entertainment. In the Sixties, when I became old enough to drive, it was also my favorite date night activity. It sparked some of my steamiest teenage romances.

Since then, the number of drive-in theaters has dropped by 90%. A combination of factors caused the demise of my favorite past-time. The VCR, DVDs, and finally the advent of streaming took over as consumers could increasingly watch the same movie entertainment from their couches at home. If you felt like going out, the invention of giant multiplexes in every shopping mall was an irresistible draw for shopping, dinner, and then a movie. Finally, rising land costs made selling properties for development much more profitable than charging tickets to dwindling crowds at the neighborhood drive-in.

Today, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), there are only about 300 of these institutions left, with my home state, Pennsylvania, and New York sharing the top spots with 28 each. The fact that owners are showing the movies of yesteryear, like Harry Potter, Goonies, and Jurassic Park just adds to the nostalgia.

Could drive-ins, ex-pandemic (if there will be such a thing), still survive? Some companies are betting they could. Walmart, for example, intends to transform 160 of its car parks into drive-in theatres in partnership with Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Enterprises. Drive-ins could provide a new use for America’s brick and mortar mall spaces. Similar efforts are underway in South Korea and Germany where drive-ins have become popular. Drive-ins may have some good things going for them as well.

Indoor movie theatres, for example, could transform their parking lots into outdoor venues. Technology, in the form of FM and Bluetooth transmissions, can easily convert into stereo sound through any car speaker system. In addition, today’s high-quality HD and 4K movies would work well projected on the giant drive-in screens.

From a marketing point of view, enterprising owners could bring back the double, or even triple features to moviegoers.  Marathon movies nights might also be popular. Retro and nostalgia fans, as well as those too young to remember all the Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones movies, might be popular.

I remember that at some point, drive-ins also featured live entertainment, bands, and even playgrounds and petting zoos.  Who knows what the entrepreneurs of the future might come up with? The point is that times are changing and sometimes we might want to look to the past for answers to today’s issues. I, for one, am hopeful that drive-ins do make a comeback.

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