On the Drive-in’s Return: as Artifact, Symbol, and Springboard

Marc Francis

Drive-ins are back. They aren’t just back; they are selling out. They were a dying species, with vines growing over their screens, like the swing sets in an uninhabitable Chernobyl. They were a relic of a bygone era of Americana. Now, drive-ins are all people have. For movies, concerts, and other live performances, they are the emblem of entertainment outside the home in the COVID age. God save the drive-in.

But the drive-in is not the new cinema. It is a simulacrum of the movie-going experience. It can’t replace it. It never did. Don’t convince yourself otherwise. Drive-ins have their own history, one that should be honored. The first drive-in opened in 1933 and the phenomenon reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s with up to 4,500 screens across the country. A cascade of images of a time I never knew flood my mind with necking and petting behind tinted windows, the “passion pit,” Grease’s “Oh Sandy Baby,” teenage hangouts, the rural, the oppressive postwar suburban, a fantasy worlds away from what were seen as the crime-infested cities at the time.

“The Ten Commandments” plays at a drive-in in 1956. (Photo: J.R. Eyerman/Getty Images)

Can you think of anything more American and suburban (and white)? You don’t need to know or see your neighbor. You just need a plus one. You just drive up. You don’t even need to get out of your car. What came first: the drive-thru or the drive-in? Is there any difference?

The drive-in is not the cinema. For me, the cinema needs bodies, uncomfortably near and intimate. All the better if they are strangers, assembled awkwardly, vulnerably, raucously, in discordant feeling states. Without bodily contingence, there is no cinema. Like so many other things, cinema must be put on hold for now, at least in most of the U.S., trailing countries around the world who have already re-opened traditional cinemas, with certain stipulations, of course.

Drive-ins do, however, offer something else. I’ll get there. But first, some context.

Today there are reportedly 300-odd registered drive-ins in the US. That was before March 2020. With all the “pop-up” drive-ins that have exploded on the scene, how to even begin to count? Google testifies: they’ve invaded everywhere. Film institutions and micro-cinemas around the world had to get ingenious to survive. Event planners and promoters, programmers, and exhibitors are stretching the spatial terms of the drive-in.

In Los Angeles, where I live, Tribeca Film repurposed the massive parking lot of the iconic Rose Bowl to become a drive-in (and the sightlines are abominable if you’re behind a beastly pickup). The Secret Movie Club sends me weekly email newsletters advertising screenings at abandoned airports and shopping centers, like a scene out of The Walking Dead or Dawn of the Dead. (Sears lives!) In downtown LA just a couple weeks ago, music video shorts of drag king performances enveloped the side of an entire building.

The strangest of all “open-air” concepts, perhaps, is the floating cinema, which debuted on the Seine in Paris this past summer, and is scheduled to do a tour of rivers and bays of many major North American cities.  Here’s how it works: the screen stays affixed to the shore while viewers watch on socially distanced boats moored in place. It’s effectively a maritime drive-in. Just wait for the accounts of sea sickness to come pouring in.

Many of these pop-ups and permanent drive-ins aren’t projecting much besides film classics, safe for the entire family, and new blockbusters or commercial films released slightly before or sparingly during the pandemic. This is a problem. From Tribeca to the Secret Movie Club to the drag king shorts, one might assume the fare being offered at pop-up drive-ins would be more interesting than the blockbusters and B-horror films at the permanent drive-ins, but alas, this is not the case. Even independent groups need a good turnout to make the costs worth it. Their programming tends to play it safe. Case in point: the feature film that showed after those drag king shorts was Get Out. Random.

With a few exceptions—such as Rooftop Films in New York and the current NYFF and the Fort Mason experiment underway in San Francisco—the drive-in can’t replace the cinema if its curatorial range is so limited. I understand groups might be taking desperate measures to recoup revenues lost since March 2020, but regardless, most of the films that my friends and I want to see are not being offered at the drive-in.

NYFF poster designed by John Waters
John Waters (pictured here with John Cameron Mitchell) programs drive-in films each year for the Provincetown Film Festival

And then there’s the problem of the automobile, whose many limitations have already compelled one smart critique of the drive-in’s widely lauded and romanticized comeback. Certainly the drive-in has its limitations.

Admittedly, I’ve been going to the drive-in monthly since COVID’s landfall in the US. While some complain that the drive-in does not offer the escape desired right now, I have found it to be perfectly satisfactory if going with friends. Parking alongside each other, rolling the windows down, my friends and I are free to react loudly, as if in our own private theater. A Palm Springs/Bridesmaids double bill, for instance, was just what the doctor ordered. Surely it was something. But I still depart the drive-in every time longing for the old days.

So what does the drive-in offer, besides momentary escape? Besides the paradoxical enjoyment of privacy and community at once?

First, the drive-in is a testament to the big screen. Where it goes, people will follow. Prognosticators of the death of cinema can hush now: cinema (in a sense) finds a way even in the worst of times. Publics—yes, they still exist!—find a way. Drive-ins, by their sheer existence, are a rebuttal to the stereotype of the 21st century digital subject who barely looks up from their mobile device or laptop to engage with the outside world. The stereotype of the contemporary “coach potato,” whose eyes toggle incessantly between TikTok videos on their phone and Netflix endlessly streaming in the background, can be put to rest now. The screen may still be king, but its size and the manner in which it is watched still does matter to people. Scale: that’s part of the reason they go to the drive-in.

Second, and more importantly, the drive-in and movie pop-up are testaments to the exhibitor’s adaptability. Funnily enough, innovative thinking from the past, employed at the dawn of television, is seeing a resurgence in these socially distanced times.[1] A floundering exhibition style—the drive-in, a fossil of sorts—has found its rebirth in what many are writing off as a floundering medium.

That said, it does a disservice to the lived experience of cinema to frame the drive-in as savior. Let it be a mere example, a springboard to reimagine other modes of communal viewing. Personally, I don’t want to see the future reinstate filmgoing norms B.C. (Before COVID), which were often too stale, rigid, and disciplined, especially in the art-house and repertory sectors.

Instead, audiences and programmers alike might take this historical juncture to reassess and reimagine in-person moving-image experience in a “post-COVID” world. If the drive-in is one trick up the exhibitor’s sleeve, imagine what else they can do.

These gallant exhibitor efforts from erecting socially distanced pop-ups to programming repertory fare at established drive-ins mark a moment to rethink moving-image exhibition overall in the twenty-first century, not in mistrustful competition with streaming, TV, and other media, but dynamically concomitant with it.

Allow me to spitball some of my programming fantasies. Media scholar Anna McCarthy has shown that folks have gathered to watch sports collectively for over half a century now, and sports bars are still flourishing. RuPaul’s Drag Race regularly screens in gay bars around the world, rousing viewers to sport-like outbursts and displays of allegiance. Anticipated finales and other “appointment TV,” such as award shows and even political debates, get communal audiences on occasion, too. Why can’t this become a habit? Why not binge together? (They used to call them “marathons” before streaming rebranded them.) How about a TV exhibition space, or at least TV exhibition programming, that can be watched with others, even strangers, despite the medium’s original family-at-home intent?

I’m not reinventing the wheel. Braiding live performance together with the moving image is an already existent albeit marginal practice. How about live commentary à la Mystery Science Theater 3000? What about dance, performance art, or even marionette puppetry (a Charlie Kaufman tribute)? Add live performance to your movie going experience, like the French screening series La Collectionneuse in Los Angeles has been doing for some time. Andy Warhol sent The Chelsea Girls around the country to museums and non-cinema spaces with the Velvet Underground playing alongside. Let’s do more of that!  I want to see more of these visions of alternative collective viewing.

These used to be called “multimedia” experiences. Today they’ve been rebranded as “intermedial,” which allows audiences to encounter media in conversation with each other. Such an approach is beneficial as media changes and bodies and perception change with it. But more broadly, I am suggesting that the public and curators wrest repertory, and art cinema especially, away from the dark, quiet theater where celluloid or nitrate prints are the only acceptable format for projection.

It’s time to realign priorities. Audiences today are distracted, with a host of options for watching and listening at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean they know how to exercise that right. And it certainly doesn’t mean they know how to watch and listen. Programmers and curators have not been rendered extraneous in this media environment; they are needed now more than ever! Especially given the sheer volume and range of content out there, it is incumbent upon them to enliven the spectatorial experience, not constrain it.

Moving-image media need audiences with open minds and programmers with ingenuity that may not be all that different from what’s been needed to get through the pandemic. Maybe “ingenuity” implies gimmicks, which have their own history, all the way back to William Castle’s Tingler.[2] But surely that’s not all, even if it’s a way to unfasten people from their Apple TVs. I like to think of experiments in exhibition as somewhere between gimmick and concept, cheap thrill and thoughtful device. The drive-in symbolizes this, even if the country has been brought to this point against its will. Drive-ins and pop-ups have summoned programmers to move out of their theaters, away from traditional forms of spectating, and into unfamiliar territory. It is with that spirit that independent and art cinema might find new audiences, new spaces, new media, new sensations, and perhaps even a new generation.

I am ready for my proposition to be called fanciful. It’s justified to an extent. Capitalism’s wreckage long predates COVID and will stretch well beyond it, making it increasingly difficult to take risks in exhibition, especially in gentrified cities where the underground movements of yesteryear haunt today’s struggling subcultures. How does one find a space, let alone pay the licensing fees to show a feature? While communities should fight disaster capitalism on local and national levels in order to make grassroots art more possible, it’s time to get creative about cheap options. Remember, some of the best and most beautiful films were made with no budget. Apply the same logic to exhibition. Cultural forecasters are already signaling urban renaissances in the wake of COVID. With the city under siege, and the possibility of an affordable revival already being imagined, I can easily envision film and other moving-image media being part of this rebirth.

I recently went to a live drag show at a drive-in. And something special happened: almost in unison, everyone got out of their cars and decided to sit on their roofs (responsibly distanced, of course), as if spectators had decided they couldn’t bear the thought of watching, from inside their motorized tin cans on wheels, their favorite queens performing fifty feet away. Most ended up putting dents on the tops of their cars. Did people care? No. They felt the rush of being part of a public again for an hour. This desire will not go away; it will only balloon with time. Thinking ahead to calmer, more intimate “post-COVID” times, these fresh options will be waiting in the wings, if only curators and audiences are brave enough to seize them.

[1] As Guy Barefoot says about 1950s America, “Spatial and temporal barriers were being broken down through the rise of the automobile and the highway, a domestic architecture of picture windows, and television’s blurring of boundaries between private space and public entertainment…[The drive-in] was a place where unshaven men could be seen standing in a concession line and children ran around in their pyjamas.” For more, see Guy Barefoot, “My Search for ‘Passion Pits with Pix’: Cinema history and 1950s Drive-In audiences,” Participations 16, no. 1 (2019), pp. 824-843, and Mary Morley Cohen, “Forgotten Audiences in the Passion Pits: Drive-in Theatres and Changing Exhibition Practices in Post-War America,” Film History, 6, 1994, pp. 470-486.

[2] For more on the gimmick, see Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Harvard University Press, 2020).

Header Image: Tribeca Drive-in at the Rose Bowl, courtesy Digital LA.

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