On a Saturday Night, the Drive-in Movie Theater Is the Only Place to Be

“We’re getting summertime business in the spring time without a blockbuster to drive the audience in,” says a drive-in manager. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

At around 7:00 p.m. on a recent Saturday in Montclair, California — the sun descending over the San Gabriel Mountains as much of the rest of the country continued to grow confrontationally restive in its second month under COVID-19 shelter-in-place rules — a long line of cars snaked down Ramona Avenue toward the Mission Tiki Drive-in Theatre. Local health-department ordinances had left fellow drive-ins in nearby Los Angeles and Riverside Counties indefinitely shuttered, along with the entirety of SoCal’s conventional multiplexes. So by equal parts luck and default, the nostalgic, 67-acre outdoor movie mecca with its Moai statue garden and palm-thatched ticket huts had become one of the last bastions of public entertainment for miles around.

Built in 1956 when Eisenhower still occupied the Oval Office and Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” was the top pop song, the Polynesian-themed theater was offering a quadruple bill of double features: Knives Out and The Hunt, Bloodshot alongside The Invisible Man, Trolls World Tour paired with The Secret Life of Pets 2, and IFC’s The Wretched followed by True History of the Kelly Gang — all respectively screening at 8 and 10 p.m., seven nights a week.

Theatergoer Gina Whitcomb traveled nearly 30 miles from her home in Anaheim to meet up with her sister, Aimee Durante (hailing from another 30 miles to the east in Redlands, California), at the Mission Tiki for the second time in as many weeks. They planned to settle into folding chairs positioned outside their cars and enjoy a few snacks at a screening of The Wretched — a micro-budget indie horror flick plotted around a moody teenager’s battle with an infanticidal witch posing as the cool mom next door. The sisters admitted the movie itself took a back seat to communal moviegoing, which they saw as an antidote to weeks of stay-at-home living.

“I was like, ‘Let’s go to the drive-in!’ Neither of us had been in decades,” said Whitcomb, a grade-school teacher who brought along her teenage son, Mark, and his friend, Gavin Lee. “We saw Bloodshot and The Invisible Man last time. We’re not going to see Trolls. So we let the boys choose.”

While the nation’s biggest theater chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark — remain closed by governmental advisory (not to mention mired in billions of dollars of respective debt) and only a smattering of independent theaters have continued selling admissions amid pandemic uncertainty, Whitcomb and her family are hardly alone in heading for their nearest drive-in. The theaters’ bargain ticket prices — $10 per adult per double feature at the Mission Tiki — and tailgate-party vibe, coupled with patrons’ individual vehicles serving as the ultimate social-distancing bulwark against microbial transmission, have positioned drive-ins as a cure for a certain kind of COVID-related social malaise. Amazon has already seized onto the evolving social phenomenon, launching its original thriller The Vast of the Night at select drive-ins across the country on May 15 and 16 ahead of the movie’s Prime Video debut May 29 (charging a mere $0.50 admission per car in homage to both Vast of the Night’s ’50s milieu and the baby-boomer heyday of outdoor theaters). Even New York governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated a willingness to fast-track reopening his state’s 30 or so drive-in movie theaters, which are currently under padlock as nonessential businesses. “Where is the public-safety issue? It’s a drive-in theater,” Cuomo said at a recent coronavirus briefing. “You’re in the car with the same people.” To wit: as the Mission Tiki neared its first showtime Saturday, each of the theater’s four outdoor auditoriums appeared to be at 75 to 85 percent capacity.

The Virginia-based industry advocacy group United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association was unable to provide precise figures, but anecdotal evidence and a frenzy of subsequent headlines suggests attendance at the nation’s 305 drive-ins is on a drastic upswing — never mind that most major movie studios have postponed the release of their late spring and early summer blockbusters like No Time to Die, F9, and The Eternals. In what can be read as a positive augury for the future of theatrical moviegoing in a post-coronavirus world, movie fans are clearly hungry for something more than Netflix, even if that something is mostly older repertory films, low-profile independent releases, and titles like Bloodshot and Trolls World Tour that are already available via VOD.

“There’s nothing else open. There’s literally nothing else to do,” said Montclair local Clarissa Ochoa. “I don’t understand why! Why is the drive-in movie, of all things, the only thing open?”

“You can’t be in the house all day,” added her date, Cesar Enriquez. “You’ve got to do something.”

According to “Frank” — who declined to provide a last name and identified himself only as “a manager” of the Mission Tiki, despite the fact that he bears a striking resemblance to Frank Huttinger, chairman/CEO of the De Anza Land and Leisure Corp., which owns five drive-ins across three states — the drive-in business overall had been in steady decline for the past three years due to increasing real-estate prices and changing viewer habits. The theaters’ recent business uptick can be attributed, at least partially, to a dawning recognition by modern audiences of the drive-in as a kind of coronavirus carefree zone.

“The drive-ins are a safe place,” said Frank, who was conspicuously eschewing a mask while attempting to film the Saturday-night rush via drone. “We’re obliging our customers to behave themselves in terms of safe distancing, wearing masks, queuing up at appropriate distances at the snack bars, the restrooms. We’re seeing people come who have never come to a drive in before, people who haven’t come since they were children however many years ago.”

“We’re getting good business,” he continued. “We’re getting summertime business in the spring time without a blockbuster to drive the audience in.”

For the uninitiated, the drive-in theater experience, which requires audience members tune into a dedicated radio station for audio, stands apart from a visit to the multiplex. At a recent 8 p.m. engagement, latecomers’ headlights frequently disrupted the darkness, dimming the imagery onscreen, well after showtime had begun. Theatergoers arriving in trucks and SUVs aimed their flatbeds and hatchbacks at the screen and reclined amid blankets and pillows brought from home. About halfway through The Wretched — which opened in 12 theaters across North America on May 1 and has been described as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Rear Windowby IndieWire — a Union Pacific railway train blew its klaxon while traveling along the track situated directly behind the Mission Tiki’s Screen 4. At one point, a dog brought along to the screening barked loudly for several minutes.

Just before a screening of Knives Out was set to begin, I asked a group of women including Erica Johnson of Los Angeles how much they missed theatrical moviegoing. “On a scale of one to ten? Ten,” Johnson said. “It’s weird not to go to a movie theater.” But she was quick to heap praise on the Mission Tiki’s continuing operation, and more generally, drive-in theaters as a gathering place, especially in an era of dwindling entertainment options and growing claustrophobia: “This is a response to being locked in place. Wanting to see our friends. Wanting to enjoy a night out. This is more of a social experience.”

“I know nothing about Knives Out,” added another member of her group, Ebony Toliver from Los Angeles, a first-time drive-in movie attendee. “It could be any damn movie! We’re here because we’re here together. It could be Smurfs, whatever. Trolls. I’m here. I’m here for the experience. It’s definitely hitting a spot since the theaters closed.”

On a Saturday Night, the Drive-in Is the Only Place to Be