Are drive-in movie theaters poised for comeback amid coronavirus crisis?

As cineplexes shutter around the country amid the inexorable spread of the coronavirus, there's a treasured relic of filmgoing past poised for an unlikely comeback: the drive-in movie theater.

Audiences are showing renewed interest in drive-ins, the moviegoing pastime long endangered as film watching moved out of parking lots and into malls and then living rooms over the past few decades. According to the latest box-office tallies, with most indoor theaters have shuttered across the United States, drive-ins are still generating revenue for the beleaguered film industry.

After all, the drive-in offers a safe and practical option for people to spend a few hours away from self-quarantining and still practice social distancing (assuming your municipality is not under government-mandated "safer at home" orders). Aside from paying an entry fee, there's virtually no human-to-human contact involved beyond. The drivers and passengers, presumably who have been sheltering together, remain confined to their cars, lined up in front of the massive screen.

It's especially appealing for those parents among us desperate to get the kids out of the house in ways that are not "walk around the block five times." So why not pack the family into the minivan (more likely in 2020: mid-size SUV), pack up some snacks, turn on that radio dial and hit the drive-in? Maybe even sneak in a kid or two in the trunk for old time's sake.

Of course it's possible you're reading this and have been patronizing drive-ins this whole time. Someone has been keeping the few remaining outdoor theaters in business. In that case, more power to you.

For the rest of us cinephiles who are allowed to venture out, the big challenge is finding a venue.

Abandoned Old Style Drive In Movie Theater With Screen
Abandoned Old Style Drive In Movie Theater With Screen

According to AAA, there are only 305 drive-in theaters still operating in the U.S. — though as notes, several others remain standing and could potentially be rebooted at some point. At their peak in the 1950s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins nationwide. Theaters remain in 45 states; only Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and North Dakota are bereft of drive-ins.

A return to drive-ins could help soothe fears — among avid moviegoers, and, especially, exhibitors — that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decline of traditional cinemas in the era of streaming and fractured entertainment options.

Movie studios have not only delayed numerous release dates (more on that later), they've also expedited the digital premieres of films like Universal's The Invisible Man and The Hunt, Sony's Bloodshot, and Disney's Frozen 2 and Onward, among others. Universal went so far as to announce that the release of its family-friendly sequel Trolls World Tour will simultaneously arrive theaters and video on demand on the same date, April 10 (provided any theaters remain open at that point).

Perhaps overreacting, the media has signaled this drastic window-shortening could be the end of the movie theater world as we know it. Even Chance the Rapper is scared.

Already-vulnerable national theater chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark have shut down for at least 12 weeks, this following the lowest weekend grosses in 20 years. The National Association of Theater Owners is asking the government for relief.

One challenge facing drive-ins is the restrictions that several cities, states and local governments are placing on large gatherings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended events not be held with 50 people or more for the next eight weeks. Does a drive-in audience count as a large gathering if we're not even breathing the same air? In a new era full of uncertainties, not even the drive-in exhibitors know.

It's a "gray area," Doug Mercille, owner of the Starlite Drive-In in Cadet, Mo., told the Los Angeles Times. But he added: "I don't think we fit into the gathering category personally because all the gathering places are places where you are confined with a bunch of people. … At the drive-in, you've got to be in your own car."

Meanwhile, following California Gov. Gavin Newsom's request Thursday night (followed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday) that all residents should remain at home for the foreseeable future, more states are likely to follow, which would make the drive-in option moot.

There's also the question of what movies the drive-ins will be able to program.

With studios collectively postponing their film slates, including A Quiet Place II (from this Friday to TBD), Mulan (from March 27 to TBD), Black Widow (from May 1 to TBD), No Time to Die (from April 2 to November), and Fast 9 (from May 22 to April 2, 2021), our viewing options might be stuck in time for a while.

Elisabeth Moss in 'The Invisible Man' (Universal)
Elisabeth Moss in 'The Invisible Man' (Universal)

We hope you really want to see The Invisible Man, Onward or Bloodshot.

Assuming they can continue to operate, drive-in theaters could look at programming classic family-friendly fare like E.T. or The Princess Bride, or even older films from 1950s, '60s and '70s, when drive-ins were in their heyday. Or perhaps recent Oscar winners like the South Korean sensation Parasite? (Parents, do not take your children to Parasite.)

Drive-in business has already picked up in theaters in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and, until Thursday, California, according to the L.A. Times.

It's a good old-fashioned social gathering and a newfound social-distancing exercise at the same time. Just bring your own popcorn.

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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