It’s the picture of a classic summer day. A drive up a sun-dappled L.A. freeway. Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” drifting out of the speakers. The windows open. The traditional destination for carefree late July days like this is often an ice-cold movie theater; plush red seats and the scent of artificial popcorn flavoring should be ahead. While popcorn will be available at the end of our journey, the confines of an arctic movie theater retreat will not.
Instead, we park at the Tribeca Drive-In’s L.A. area home of the Rose Bowl parking lot in Pasadena, CA. HBO Max’s American Pickle — starring Seth Rogen and debuting in a matter of days on Thursday, August 6 — will begin playing in about an hour. Cars have already begun lining up — one vehicle’s distance apart, in accordance with social distancing rules — on both sides of the massive projector in the center of the lot. This is the hottest ticket in town on a Sunday afternoon — and it’s all for a movie specifically crafted for viewers to enjoy from the comfort of their home. No driving necessary is technically the whole point. And these theaters, once seen as relics of the past in movies like Grease, are more than ready for their revival following years of closures in the industry.
Yet, as shelter-at-home rules drive people into the protective bubble of their abodes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to safely escape the four walls of one’s living room is all the more alluring. That’s why Walmart just announced a huge new drive-in deal with Tribeca Film Festival. That maxim is also what’s driving women around the country to drop their Roku remotes — with access to countless streaming flicks and cheap on-demand options — and head to one of the most retro establishments around.
“There’s literally nothing else to do, so why not drive an hour just to see a movie?,” 27-year-old teacher Allana Brown asked during a phone call with Refinery29. Brown lives in Nyack, NY with her husband and has been driving roughly 40 miles to Warwick Drive-In Theater since mid-June during the pandemic. In that time she’s seen Relic, Invisible Man, and The Secret Life of Pets, all of which are available to stream for fewer than $7 on multiple platforms. Invisible Man even enjoyed a splashy video on demand release in March, as social restrictions first started going into effect.
“I know they released it on-demand and whatnot, but I hadn’t seen it,” Brown, who previously saw horror movies monthly in theaters with her cousin, said with a shrug in her voice. “So once the drive-in reopened and they were doing Relic and Invisible Man, we were like, ‘Okay, we’re going. Immediately.’”
You want to get out of your home. If anything, just put on clothes and feel normal again.
Brown has frequented the Warwick Drive-In for the last few years, and she started noticing a big change over the last few months of the pandemic. The establishment is running at half-capacity and requiring ticket reservations. “We tried to go for like two weeks and we couldn’t get tickets. The third week, we finally got tickets,” Brown explained. “We got there an hour early, and we had one of the last spots in the lot. It was packed.”
Despite the increased popularity of drive-ins, attendees still seem to feel safe. As 25-year-old Katie Cruz — a social media manager who used to work at Refinery29 — said, the drive-in is one of the few excursions she has allowed herself while living with an immunocompromised parent. While Cruz’s family has been limiting grocery shopping to deliveries and treating pharmacy trips with tactical precision, she has seen movies like A Star Is Born at the local drive-in (which just so happens to also be the Warwick Drive-In).
“We’re like, ‘Okay, we’re literally not leaving the car. It’s fine.’ So that was an easy one,” Cruz said. “Because I have nowhere else to go, it’s nice to have somewhere to leave to. Just to take a break in between all of that cabin fever. But at the same time, you’re not really breaking too far out of your comfort zone because you’re still in your controlled area of your car.”
Even drive-in insiders recognize safety is a reason for the drive-in renaissance. “New customers that have discovered the drive-in. We’re seeing a lot more visits than we have in the past,” Jim Kopp, the administrative secretary at the the United Drive-In Theaters Association, told Refinery29 over the phone. “We’re very fortunate since most of the other movie theaters have been shut down because of the pandemic … We’re always grateful that the majority of folks feel that we’re safe and secure.”
One of the safety regulations Kopp emphasizes the most is the increased usage of online food apps for picking up snacks like popcorn. “A lot of people are worried about going into any kind of indoor restaurant or indoor establishment and even concession stands,” Virginia-based Kopp said. With apps, no such prolonged encounters are necessary, since notifications tell customers exactly when they can pick up their food.
Across the country, 30-year-old filmmaker/photographer and Los Angeleno Michelle Hernandez Wenzler appreciates the changes proprietors like Kopp have implemented. Although the desire for protection does still lead to inter-car chicken at times, though. “One of the rules is that everyone has to be a car apart. Sometimes [the drive-in] probably outsells a movie and they can’t really control that,” Hernandez Wenzler began. “What I’ll do is, if we’re really close to a car, I’ll wait and see if they go out or if we go out. So that we’re safe between each other.”
At this point Hernandez Wenzler is a bit of a drive-in expert. Since May, she and her husband have seen The Vast of Night, Valley Girl, The Lost Boys, Our Times, and Hulu streaming comedy Palm Springs at Mission Tiki in Montclair, which is about an hour outside of Los Angeles. “I currently still work, I go to my office. If one of us gets sick, we want to make sure one of us can take care of each other,” Hernandez Wenzler revealed about the couple’s health safety strategy. “So when lockdown first began, I told [my husband], ‘You need to stay in.’ But when we first started dating, he would go to so many movies and theaters. I really missed that aspect too of watching a movie, so we talked about the drive-ins and we’re like, ‘Let’s do that.’”
That passion for getting out to the movies even extended to Palm Springs, which Hernandez Wenzler knew she could have streamed with ease in her apartment. “But we were like, ‘You know what? It’s at the drive-in. Let’s go watch it!’ I love it,” she explained excitedly.
Serena Lewis, a 32-year-old lawyer who was sheltering in place in D.C. with her boyfriend, also sees the drive-in as the pandemic’s answer to date night. “We were yearning for a date,” Lewis said of her romantic trip to see Sonic the Hedgehog through Park Up D.C. — a drive in pop-up at the defunct Robert F. Kennedy Stadium — in late July. “Because we see each other all the time, but it’s different when you’re just in the house versus getting dressed. I put on lipstick.”
While the couple went out to see a movie that’s available for about $5 on most streaming services, Lewis would “totally” go see a streaming-first like American Pickle movie at the drive-in. “Because you want to get out of your home. If anything, just put on clothes and feel normal again,” she admitted. “We’re missing it. All of my makeup just sits here. Although… My skin is fresher than ever.”