At the start of 2020, many people (myself included) were openly wondering how long the movie theater business model could last. Now, the situation has become far more dire. AMC has filed for bankruptcy protection and God Emperor Amazon has expressed interest in buying the chain. And despite a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that says content creators can’t also own theaters, the DOJ has announced it’s going to stop enforcing those regulations. This has the potential to permanently destroy movie theaters as we know them but practically no one noticed.
The independent theaters have been trying to survive via niche strategies such as selling merchandise and converting their parking lots into drive-in theaters. Before this year, I had never been to a drive-in screening. But one of my favorite theaters was playing Star Wars: The Force Awakens on an inflatable movie screen. In theory it sounded like a dumb idea more suited for a child’s birthday party. In practice it was a great new way to see the film.
But people who claim drive ins are going to replace traditional theaters forget why they existed in the first place. They were NEVER intended to be a showcase for the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of the time. Rather, they existed because it was much cheaper to install a single screen and snack bar in a parking lot than it was to house an actual theater with seats. Their rise was shared by the boom in car ownership during the post WWII years in the U.S. Now, people are predicting owning your own car will become a thing of the past by 2030. Today, the largest drive-in in the world also serves as the world’s largest daily flea market. By the end of the 1980s, most had shut down. The 1996 blockbuster Twister had an explicit scene in which a drive-in theater in rural Texas playing the all-time classic The Shining was completely destroyed. Modern film audiences believed the format was completely dead and deservedly crushed by the multiplexes they watched Twister in.
Overall it’s not the ideal for any movie or theater owner. Your screenings are dependent on the weather, dependent on when the sun sets, and dependent on how quickly and cheaply you can get the rights to screen the movie. Right now it’s the only option, but does any theater manager believe Warner Brothers will let Tenet be screened on an inflatable screen? Besides, streaming platforms are also ramping up their release to fill the void left by 2020’s theatrical releases. Movies like The Old Guard, The King of Staten Island, Palm Springs, Irresistible, and Da 5 Bloods went straight to streaming. Even would be blockbusters like Scoob! and Trolls World Tour skipped theaters. Streaming is becoming the default for many casual movie fans and to pretend a revival of drive-ins can replace this is not paying attention to what people expect. They want convenience. Expecting anyone to show up to a specific place at a specific time just to watch a movie is becoming an increasingly big ask for the modern audience.
Still, if there’s one thing our modern pop culture understands, it’s a niche. If a studio wants to, they will find an audience for their product, even if it’s not the biggest audience in the world. And I do believe there are certain types of films that could succeed in a revived drive-in setting.
- Classic Blockbusters — This is a no-brainer as it’s been the current default. But if theaters are going to survive after COVID, then it must continue. Nostalgia has been driving movie culture for over a decade now. There are few filmmakers today who are crafting original ideas with blockbuster budget and most studios are putting more focus on hanging onto their catalog so they can build streaming services.
So, with an increasing dependence on archives, it makes sense that independent theaters should continue to screen classic blockbusters like Star Wars. People are still responding to these films the same way they did decades ago and drive-ins provide a new experience but a level of comfort.
- New Genre Films — Most people forget an important component of the indie film boom — the fact that, for many years, they were made up of B-grade monster movies. Some, like those featured on MST3K, were trash. But there are plenty of legendary filmmakers — like Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sam Raimi, and James Cameron – who got their start making low budget horror movies.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a filmmaker come to prominence starting on low budget b-movie. Edgar Wright’s likely the closest but even then Shaun of the Dead was more of a subversive comedy than a legitimate horror film. Frankly, there just has not been a proper market for them and most directors who try — like the Soska Sisters — end up on random streaming services and practically no one outside the most obsessive fans pay any attention to these potentially great filmmakers. If drive-ins are going to make a comeback, then so should exploitation movies. It is the perfect format for the next Evil Dead-esque franchise, and it will give an opportunity for cult films to actually become ”cult films” again.
- Second-run new releases — One thing that I remember from my youth is the ”dollar theater.” This was the last place to catch a movie on the big screen before it was released to Blockbuster stores. And it was a cheaper alternative with no late fees.
This actually reflects another release drive-ins were used for. Until the rise of the multiplex, films weren’t released everywhere at the same time. In smaller communities, films were usually released months after their official release in the big cities. That idea died out after multiplexes made them unnecessary but now we’re in a world where shared cultural experiences are incredibly rare.
With that in mind, I think it makes sense to use drive-ins as a venue for second run movies but they have to be connected to another event. What if, for example, they held a back-to-back-screening of all the Best Picture nominees? Certain theater chains already do that, so drive-ins should take up the mantle. It would provide a new opportunity for people to see those movies and for people who already to get a new perspective.
- Special Events- I’m very skeptical of where this could lead. I personally would hate to see movie theaters turn into a showcase for the Super Bowl. But I’ve talked about how theaters will have to depend on live events to survive because that’s the biggest advantage theaters have. The fact we’re able to broadcast operas worldwide is still a miracle and drive-ins should embrace that. One of the biggest advantages theaters still have is the communal experience.
Now, I don’t want every film experience to turn into a tailgating party there certainly is a place for it and it certainly would drive an audience back to theaters.
But what sort of special events work? After all, Fathom broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera aren’t going to encourage people to attend a drive in. Maybe I should admit the easiest thing to do would be sports games. My local indie theater/taphouse is already playing ESPN in its lobby. Perhaps, if theaters are going to survive post COVID, they should be read to screen football games.
Studios are going to have to adjust to new audience expectations and new platforms. And increasingly people are responding to theaters by saying, ”You mean I have to show up at a specific time in a specific place and once the movie starts, I can’t pause it or rewind it? And once I pay I can only see the movie once? Preposterous!” We need something new. MoviePass could have represented that new model if it hadn’t exploded like the Hindenburg. Drive-in set ups may be a way to address what people want now — so long as they have the movies to back up the idea. And considering how finicky audiences are and how quickly trends can change, theater chains will need to adopt drive-ins fast.