How COVID-19 created the accidental summer of drive-ins

Drive in Theaters The Malta Drive-in. (Photo: Roohan Realty)

Not very many people saw Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a movie theater, but even fewer experienced it as it was truly meant to be seen: outdoors, as part of a double feature with Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. My friends and I considered leaving during The Horse Whisperer; it was soft-focus drudgery, the scenes shot in our upstate New York hometown were done early, and Redford’s star power wasn’t carrying us through.

But we stuck it out. At the drive-in, we always stuck it out, whether we were suffering through a first viewing of The Horse Whisperer or a third viewing of Air Force One, a movie that seemed to play at drive-ins for months, despite only being available for five weeks or so, late in the summer of 1997.

1997 was my Summer of Drive-Ins. I went six times, which meant I saw 12 movies, only some of which were multiple viewings of Air Force One and Men in Black. I also saw some of my favorites (Face/Off), some of the dregs (Speed 2: Cruise Control), and some of my favorite dregs (Spawn). I still try to go at least once a summer, even though I live in New York City, where the closest “ozoner,” as the trades apparently call them, is a solid 90 minutes away. 

There’s a long list of things I never expected in 2020, and one of the many sub-bullets under “global pandemic changes our lives forever” is “everyone else has a drive-in summer too.” But it has happened: With overly hasty “re-opening” plans stalling out, drive-ins are the only option for “real” moviegoing for large swaths of the United States. The drive-in is back from the dead!

Truthfully, drive-ins have not been quite as close to extinction as assumed or advertised even before COVID-19 hit. Though there was a massive reduction in drive-in screens between their 1950s ubiquity and low point in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the closures did eventually level off, as many remaining drive-ins were able to maintain a steady, loyal audience, probably owing to their family-friendliness and novelty. The longtime single-screen operation closest to my hometown, the Malta Drive-In, actually added a screen in 2008.

I went to the Malta Drive-In three times in June. I was visiting family upstate, and I hadn’t been to a movie theater since a March 11th press screening of My Spy (whose then-upcoming drive-in release, simultaneous with its Amazon Prime debut, was advertised during my visit). My wife—the actual car-owner in the family—and I weren’t feeling picky, which was a benefit. With the summer movie season effectively undergoing a slow-motion cancellation (good luck with those new August dates, Tenet and Mulan!), there isn’t exactly a major influx of product. 

Universal Pictures, which let Trolls: World Tour play in drive-ins for months without bothering to report grosses, pulled their Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson comedy The King of Staten Island from over 100 drive-ins just before its June 12th release. They characterized it as an accident (you know, one of those accidental 100-screen bookings). They also clearly wanted to emphasize the title as a VOD exclusive, in what seems like a bid to piss off the handful of theater operators who weren’t already irritated with recent who-needs-theaters comments. 

The drive-in is back from the dead!

As a long-time drive-in fan, I was fascinated to see Staten Island abruptly pulled and replaced with whatever the operators could scrounge up. In this case, many of them dug up the Bella Thorne starrer Infamous, a movie that bravely asks, “What if Bonnie and Clyde didn’t really go anywhere, but Bonnie was really into Insta?” The movie was, by the handful of advance accounts, quite bad. The idea of seeing it at a drive-in nonetheless gave me an enormous thrill, as I’d already watched Staten Island to review it anyway, and the other screen at the Malta was playing a Jaws/Jurassic Park double feature (which we also attended, on another night). Infamous was a new movie! At a movie theater! In the summer of 2020!

It was also a pretty terrible one—the kind of movie where a lack of outright loathing or condescension to its lead characters feels almost like a saving grace. But by watching the low-rent, youth-friendly exploitation of Infamous (which, doubled up with Birds of Prey, definitely attracted the teenage crowd while the families went for the Spielbergs) at the drive-in, I did feel like I was connecting with something authentic about the history of this exhibition. 

Content-wise, modern drive-ins are usually pretty much just multiplex echo-booms. The biggest movie of the week plays in a double feature with the biggest movie of two or three weeks ago. Sometimes the pairings get interesting when there are extra screens to fill, and you wind up with that Hunter S. Thompson/Robert Redford combo from 1998. As blockbusters become ever more dominant, my recent trips to the drive-in have involved figuring out which Mission: Impossible movie I can combine with which superhero movie (usually for a second viewing or, in the case of Birds of Prey, my third). 

Birds of Prey (WB)

Suddenly, there aren’t blockbusters to play—at least not new ones. Plenty of drive-ins have been running revival #content like those Spielberg summer classics, or Ghostbusters, or The Goonies. Some of this is fun; sometimes it resembles the least imaginative outdoor-movie programming in any given major city (minus even the most obvious cult items like The Big Lebowski). 

It’s a shame that more theaters (and/or more studios) don’t seem interested in programming more specific throwback fare, rather than the usual ‘80s suspects. I saw, for example, What Lies Beneath and the original X-Men together at a drive-in 20 years ago this month, and I’d love to see the endless anniversary appreciations and criticism that’s become a staple of every pop culture website translated into something you can actually go see: double features from the summer of 1988, or 1995, or 2002.

More interesting, to me, is the way that the unassuming IFC horror title The Wretched became an early-summer drive-in mainstay simply by making itself available. As it happens, The Wretched is a throwback befitting its drive-in release: Set in a small lakefront tourist town, it captures the feeling of summer, with its scares providing a whoosh of autumn chill in the air. 

More interesting, to me, is the way that the unassuming IFC horror title The Wretched became an early-summer drive-in mainstay simply by making itself available.

It’s no longer a given that the blockbuster line-up for any any given summer will actually feel seasonal (not least because potential blockbusters are released all around the calendar). It’s one precedent set by Jaws, the “first blockbuster” of legend, that shifted release patterns and essentially created the summer-movie industry, that’s gone mostly ignored in the decades since. Jaws feels like summer. Watching it last month at a drive-in as the muggy air turned chilly, it felt right at home.

The Wretched isn’t as great a movie as Jaws, of course, but its relative disposability feels summer-y too. Modern drive-ins so rarely venture outside the top 10 movies at the box office that it’s a little bit thrilling to see them recreate new box office charts (however skimpy) in their own image. 

IFC, emboldened by their success with The Wretched, is keeping the horror-movie parade going. Relic, a quietly bleak movie of metaphorical horrors, did a week at drive-ins before hitting VOD, and The Rental, a new horror thriller from Dave Franco, had its premiere at a drive-in. They’ll be joined by movies like My Spy and Palm Springs that traditional theaters might have blanched at showing simultaneously with their VOD premieres, and more cheap exploitation fare like Followed, another social media thriller that looks a little less meandering than Infamous.  

The Wretched (IFC)

Are these smaller movies, plus various spring leftovers, plus the occasional big-studio title shunted off to VOD but given a token release, plus greatest-hits packages from years past, enough to cobble together a whole summer movie season? Not really. Tenet looked like a potential coup, a happy medium for anyone dying but not literally willing to risk death to see the latest Christopher Nolan movie on a big screen… but now it seems likely to move into the fall or beyond, when east coast drive-ins, at least, will start to close for the season. 

The summer movie season was so gargantuan for so long that three months of IFC horror movies and Spielberg redux will look meager by comparison. But this summer’s offerings in drive-in theaters do feel seasonal and specific in a way that past seasons have reserved for the most elite of beloved blockbusters. For better and worse, summer moviegoing has become an experience again. 

[T]his summer’s offerings in drive-in theaters do feel seasonal and specific in a way that past seasons have reserved for the most elite of beloved blockbusters. For better and worse, summer moviegoing has become an experience again. 

Even if the pandemic drags on without proper treatments for another year, chances are, people who saw Infamous starring Bella Thorne will remember when, why, and how they saw it, because these are the kind of circumstances (and this is the kind of movie) that require those explanations. I certainly had no reason to revisit Shrek ever again, but I’m just as certain that I’ll remember sitting with my four-year-old daughter in the front seat of our Honda on our third Malta outing last month. Did she like the movie? It’s hard to say. (“The donkey just won’t stop talking,” she observed without judgment but also without much amusement.) But I bet she’ll remember it. 

For 90 minutes and change, my abiding fear as a parent during a pandemic—that this will last long enough to dominate the childhood memories she’s starting to form, not as a blip but as part of her childhood itself—softened into a feeling less suffused with dread, not so ridden with anxiety. In the front seat of our car, forced by something new to try something old, it felt, however briefly, like a normal summer.

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