Close your eyes and picture a drive-in movie theater. Imagine an expansive grassy field lined with cars, each vehicle turned toward a towering screen bathed in projector light. See the couples, families, and solo adventurers munching on snacks and laughing at the antics on-screen. Hear the film’s dialogue warbling through radio sets dialed to the local station.
This panorama would seem like a dream set in the 1950s, but it’s not. It’s 2020—and the drive-in is back.
While the novel coronavirus pandemic has emptied out indoor cineplexes, concert venues, and sports arenas, the nostalgic, near-obsolete practice of parking under the stars to see the latest flick is back in business. (Though diehards would say it never disappeared.) Just over 300 drive-in movie theaters remain in the U.S.—a far cry from the more than 4,000 that were operating during their ’50s heyday—but these relics now offer one of the few viable forms of outdoor entertainment in the midst of widespread stay-at-home measures.
Outdoor cinemas have received the blessing to reopen from a number of state governors including Tony Evers of Wisconsin, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and Andrew Cuomo of New York. The trend could very well spread across the nation as more states cautiously lift COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. Drive-ins are a natural candidate for relief given the inherent social distancing of being inside a parked personal car.
So in which states are drive-in theaters open, or planning to open soon? And exactly what kinds of movies can you expect to see? Will blockbusters from major studios make their premieres under the night sky? Read on to find out.
Which drive-in theaters are open?
Rules and guidelines for drive-ins vary by state. Some states are allowing only regions that have passed certain measures, such as a lowered percentage of new COVID-19 cases, to open businesses like drive-ins. And because of the constantly evolving nature of government response to the pandemic, any list of open businesses can change week by week or even daily.
Wannabe drive-in attendees will need to check the guidelines of their local districts before making their way to the theater. But as of May 15, drive-ins have resumed business in some capacity in the following states:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
The status of drive-ins remains less clear in other states. Take Virginia, where Family Drive-in Theatre owner Jim Kopp told the Washington Post he had the okay from Gov. Ralph Northam’s office to reopen. The paper described the permission as “apparent,” as the governor’s office did not respond to its request for comment (nor did it from Fortune).
Other states, like Washington and Michigan, remain steadfast in the decision to keep drive-ins closed despite protest from theater owners. In the case of Michigan, a drive-in owner defiantly told the local outlet Battle Creek Enquirer: “We’re open. We’ll wait and see what happens.”
John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-in Theatres Association of America, told CNN on April 24 that at least 8% of drive-in theaters had remained open despite restrictions on nonessential services. He later told the Post on May 2 that he expects around 150 theaters to reopen over the next three weeks as states relax their restrictions.
What movies can you see at drive-in theaters?
All sorts, depending on the theater. Some drive-ins are screening classics: Riverside Drive-In in Armstrong County, Pa., for example, returns to action this Friday with a double-feature of The Wizard of Oz and Twister. Others, like the Warwick Drive-In Theater in Warwick, N.Y., are opting for titles from the past year. Its May 15 through May 21 slate includes Bad Boys for Life, The Invisible Man, Bloodshot, Jumanji: The Next Level, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Trolls World Tour.
What about brand-new movies that haven’t been released yet? Major studios have pushed back most of their significant releases, opting to hold them for later this year or release a few titles straight-to-digital, as in the case of Trolls World Tour. Two of the earliest currently scheduled releases, Warner Bros.’ Christopher Nolan thriller Tenet and Disney’s Mulan remake, are due to open in theaters nationwide—yes, indoors—in July. Should the pandemic prevent enough standard indoor cineplexes from opening, it is unlikely the studios would premiere them solely in drive-ins.
Some notable players are getting creative with the drive-in. Amazon Studios is screening its yet-to-be-released sci-fi thriller The Vast of the Night across 34 drive-ins on May 15 and May 16. An Amazon rep tells Fortune that the film’s theatrical run could extend further, ahead of its May 29 release on the Prime Video streaming service. Because of the 1950s setting of the film, Amazon has partnered with the majority of the drive-ins to offer ’50s-era admission prices: 50¢ per car.
The indie world is turning to the drive-in as well. Distributor IFC Films has released a half-dozen films to select outdoor theaters owing to the pandemic’s impact on the theatrical release calendar. Supernatural horror film The Wretched earned nearly $70,000 from 12 drive-in theaters on its first weekend; more than $200,000 in its first two weeks. Given its indie status, the fact that it has been available to rent on digital platforms, and the current coronavirus climate, it’s considered a hit for IFC.
“The interesting thing about this moment in time is that anything is possible,” Lisa Schwartz, copresident of IFC Films and Sundance Selects, told the Associated Press. “We saw an opportunity early on to continue to entertain audiences with drive-ins and thought The Wretched had the right DNA for the big outdoor screen.”
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