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A Pandemic Night at The Movies

The popularity of drive-in theatres has increased in this age of social distancing

Avatar By: Richard Crouse May 9, 2021

While the pandemic has been devastating for many in the last year and some months, one old-school business has thrived in this era of lockdowns and social distancing: drive-in theatres.

With indoor theatres shuttered much of the time, drive-ins have experienced a renaissance. In Ontario, where families are looking for ways to stay occupied, seeing movies from the comfort of your car offers an attractive way to mix social distancing with entertainment, and even a sense of community.

“It feels like a throwback,” said April Wright, the Los Angeles-based director of the documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie.”

“Initially when drive-ins were really popular in the 1940s and 1950s, they were hubs to the community. People would see their neighbors and interact. I think that’s happened again during COVID because drive-ins have been almost the only place in town you could have gatherings,” she said.

“I’ve seen church services, graduations, concerts, dance recitals and weddings happening at drive-ins. Many venues are closed, but you can move your event to a drive-in pretty safely. They have become the hub to a community again, not just for movie going but for all these other things too.”

The family of Premier Theatres owner Brian Allen has been in the business of exhibiting movies in Canada since 1907. He now runs six drive-ins, including the Oakville’s 5 Drive-In, a location he said is, “probably one of the busiest drive-ins in North America.” Business is brisk but he said comparing current traffic levels with pre-COVID numbers is complicated.

“In the middle of summer, business was probably down a bit even though we’re at we’re capacity. But where we really saw the big increases was Monday to Thursday. Last March and April was just crazy. We saw numbers we’ve never seen. This March I had the best March in the history of the company,” Allen said.

“We got a lot of people who had never been to a drive-in before saying, ‘Wow, this is a really cool,’ and it really is,” he said. “We’re so safe and we really take COVID seriously. It’s not like in the old days, like in (the movie) ‘Grease,’ with everyone walking around singing ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You.’”

Allen drew in the customers during the pandemic with a mix-and-match of double and triple bills and dusk-to-dawn screenings of new blockbusters with some old favourites.

“People are now demanding the vintage movies,” he said. “You can watch ‘Uncle Buck’ at home, but sitting in the car, under the stars, is kind of spiritual. I know I’m biased, but it really is. Some people come with their families. They bring their puppies. In the good times, before COVID, there was a real sense of camaraderie.”

And while that sense of community may now be limited to your immediate bubble, there is still a strong feeling of nostalgia when you park at your spot, turn off the car and attach your speaker.

“I think nostalgia is a very powerful tool,” Allen said. “Every one of our drive-ins has a big honking marquee with neon and we change the letters. It’s a bit of a schlep but we do it because we love the look, and we love seeing a movie name in lights. It is important to us.

“I play all the original trailers from the 1950s and when you come in, you’ll hear that condescending voice, ‘Remember, drive two miles an hour, and don’t forget to put your trash in the trash can.’ It is all nostalgia,” said Allen. “As my sister said, ‘There’s not a lot of authenticity out there these days and this is something truly authentic.’”

Allen also said you can’t really understand the lure and magic of a drive-in until you are there and experiencing it for yourself.

“At two o’clock in the afternoon it’s like a scene out of ‘The Last Picture Show,’” he said. “It’s dusty and kind of desolate. Nothing exciting happens until the sun starts to go down. You see the neon, the stars and hear ‘O Canada’ at the beginning of the movie. I find the whole thing really moving. I can’t describe it to you; you have to experience it.

“I always tell people I’m selling sovereignty, but at the same time it’s a community thing where you can do whatever you want in your car as long as you’re respectful of the people around you. My bad joke is, ‘Bring your babies. Bring your dog. Bring your weed. Just don’t bring them together.’”

Pandemic viewing

In 2020, several local film festivals went the drive-in route, including the Toronto International Film Festival, which screened films at Ontario Place. Similar events are planned for 2021 including the Lavazza Drive-In Festival, an offshoot of the Italian Contemporary Film Festival that will take place June 27 to July 18 at Ontario Place. Visit icff.ca for details.

drive-in theatres

Richard Crouse Special to Wheels