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While technology and the array of distractions it provides is helping most of us get through pandemic times, simpler forms of entertainment – especially those that allow us to leave home and do so safely – have a special appeal.

As the movie industry adjusts its release schedule due to Covid-19 by premiering new titles online, alternative ways of going to the movies are also gaining interest. Out of necessity – perhaps also a hunger for back to basics film-going, before mall-adjacent multiplexes took over the cinema landscape – drive-in entertainment is having a moment, and it’s rolling back into the social (distance-minded) consciousness in a myriad of ways.

In Southern California, where car culture is ingrained into our history, drive-ins are a source of nostalgia and childhood memories for many. Boomers went to them as teens mostly to make out (as depicted in films like The Outsiders and Grease) and a decade or two later, Gen-Xers like myself caught the tail end of in-auto movie amusement, going to the drive-in with more wholesome intentions. If you’re of a certain (pre-millennial) age, you probably have memories of the family hatchback or truck getting backed into a drive-in’s giant outdoor screen, your parents attaching tiny speaker boxes to their car windows for the movie’s audio, or wearing pajamas and bringing the comforts of home along. Often, we’d fall asleep during what was usually a double feature, and why not? It was like a mega-slumber party in public. Yep, family night at the drive-in was special.

Pre-Coronavirus times at Mission Tiki. (Courtesy Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater)

In 2020, kids are used to more stimulation, especially with current movie theater sound and picture quality systems, though it seems an appreciation for something less tech-driven is emerging. It just may have to. Coronavirus is showing no signs of ceasing spread anytime soon, and the drive-in provides a way to be out in public without potentially getting exposed to others’ germs. This fact has led to an exploration of the drive-in format and drive-in venues as a showcase not just for movies, but concerts, comedy shows and even drag extravaganzas, as well.

“I think it’s fantastic because it gives a whole new generation the opportunity to do something they’ve never done before,” says Southern California pop culture expert/author/speaker Charles Phoenix. “It’s the time-honored tradition of watching a film under the stars from the comfort of, as I call them, your private motor cars. Car culture saves the day!”

“Car culture saves the day!” (Courtesy Charles Phoenix)

The drive-in resurgence goes beyond movies too. Phoenix thinks drive-thrus can be just as much fun as drive-ins and when we’re all looking for things to do, we need to open our minds to the possibilities.

“My whole thing with drive-in and drive-thru culture is- not only is this an opportunity for us to save our own lives and the lives of others, we have the opportunity to learn history at the same time,“ he says, adding that historic locales such as the Randy Donuts in Inglewood,  the original Wienerschnitzel in Wilmington, the world’s oldest McDonalds in Downey, and The Donut Hole in La Puente (in which guests drive through a giant donut) should be added to anyone’s flashback foray into drive-in and drive-thru culture.

Though Phoenix, known for his ‘50s and ‘60s slideshow presentations and a YouTube channel called Joyride celebrating retro car culture, touts visiting old landmark drive-ins in SoCal (which have become better known for flea markets and swap meets in recent years) versus the newer makeshift drive-in experiences with portable screens such as those popping up at sports stadiums or mall parking lots, drive-in entertainment remains inherently old school cool either way. Which is why one of the biggest film festivals in the world recently decided to get in on the trend. Tribeca Film Festival has been holding weekly screenings at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and since they started back in June, they’ve been selling out.

“We hope that the drive-in serves as a reminder of the magic of the moviegoing experience,” says Tribeca co-founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “As an immediate and safe solution [to indoor theaters], we’re excited to bring new and classic works from filmmakers, creators, and artists to communities across the country. We aim to bring people together through the arts to send a signal of unity and resiliency to the world during challenging times.”

Screening of  “Jaws” at the Tribeca Drive-in at the Rose Bowl.  (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Tribeca)

Robert De Niro, Tribeca’s other co-founder, concurs in promo for the program, “The Tribeca drive-in series is a tribute to movies and the shared experience of watching them, even if from our cars,” he says. “In anticipation of theaters reopening imminently, we look back at what we love about the big screen experience.”

Street Food Cinema, a group known for picnic-like outdoor screenings similar to the Cinespia events at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, has been offering hit movies at its new in-car series with Caruso (owners of both The Grove next to Farmer’s Market on Fairfax and the Americana shopping mall in Glendale). In conjunction with Toyota, the screenings, called the “Level 8 Drive-in,” are currently taking place on the top level of the Americana’s parking lot. Classic movie refreshments, including complimentary popcorn, bottled water, and boxed candy are included with the ticket fee, but guests can enjoy another level of culinary components, with options from the shopping center’s hottest eateries including Bourbon Steak, Katsuya and Shake Shack.

Masks and movies. (Jeff Miller)

Both the Tribeca series and Level 8 have presented mostly classic films (Jaws, Wizard of Oz) and fan favorites (Mean Girls, Lala Land), but few new titles. That may change as more dates are hopefully announced for both. New releases in general are still being premiered via streaming services at home, but studios seem to be testing the waters more and more at both pre-existing drive-in locales and pop-ups.

Fatima, Marco Pontecorvo’s story of religious revelation in Portugal near the end of World War I, was previewed on a giant screen in the parking lot of the Hollywood Palladium recently, allowing four guests per car to watch the film and giving away keepsake face masks and prepackaged concessions. Similarly, Dave Franco’s new thriller The Rental also held preview screenings for press at the drive-in last month. In association with Arclight Cinemas, Franco debuted his new thriller in the City of Industry at the Vineland Drive-in, taking the opportunity to speak to fans before the movie started on the big screen and do a Q&A afterward.

Other locales providing drive-in events that aren’t too far away from L.A. include Ontario Airport, which launched a drive-in movie series last month; the “Movies Under the Moon” series in Anaheim and the City of Irvine’s drive-in series featuring movies and concerts (beginning in August).

Though they are usually streamed online as well, drive-in music performances from the likes of Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani have brought the idea to the entertainment forefront too. Voss Entertainment’s Drive-in Drag shows featuring queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race (scheduled for this weekend at the Rose Bowl) should add to the car show craze in a new way. “We typically invite the audience to tailgate in an outdoor area next to their car, but given the virus situation in L.A., people will have to remain inside at [these] shows,” says organizer Brandon Voss. “We have four Jumbotron LED screens throughout the parking lot so everybody will feel as close to the live experience as possible. ”

Drive ‘N Drag revs its engine (Voss Events)

And as various forms of entertainment experiment with “drive-in” events, safety must be of utmost concern. Local events have thus far seemed to make it a priority, but around the country this apparently isn’t always the case. As of this writing, a drive-in music event in the Hamptons last weekend featuring dance duo The Chainsmokers is being investigated for allowing patrons to get out of their cars and cluster together near the stage.

As we discovered at Franco’s event, other things have changed since our childhood drive-in days. Those who haven’t been to one in years will note that even the vintage theaters have done away with the old speaker boxes of yore. Now, patrons tune into a frequency on their car radios to get audio for the film, which provides better sound than we remember as a kid, though it can drain older cars’ batteries. At Tribeca, film audio can be streamed via cell phones. In the corona era, cars are parked 6 feet apart, and bathroom and concessions have staff on hand making sure masks and socially distanced restroom lines are enforced. Some also employ extra cleaning people to make sure these areas are sanitized.

Of course, the novelty of catching a flick in your car provides a refreshing alternative to watching one at home, and movie-lovers seem to be getting into it. Still, some hardcore cinephiles don’t think they’re optimal if you’re going to see an anticipated film.

Screening of “Jaws” at Tribeca Drive-in at the Rose Bowl. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Tribeca)

“People are getting out and seeing movies which is great and the drive-in can be fun, but I’ve always said it’s a terrible way to watch a movie,” says Jordan Dobbs Rosa, co-host of The Basic Pitch Podcast (the seasonal rom-com screenwriting game) and the weekly safer at home online screening series called The Midnight Now. “I guess I see it as a social activity as opposed to a cinematic one, the equivalent of a group in a living room who have all seen the movie many times and are going to talk over much of it because they know the good parts to quiet down for, but if you’ve ever been the one person in the living room who is seeing that movie for the first time, you know it’s a miserable place to be, which is mostly how I feel about all of the various outdoor movie events. “

Rosa, who was also a movie theater manager in his youth and worked as a production coordinator at Netflix, says that many grew up loving movies largely because it is an indoor activity. Enduring the traffic jams to get in and out of a drive-in, not to mention lesser picture and audio quality, is not really worth it for some movie buffs like him. “Especially with a projected situation, outdoors just isn’t a controlled enough environment for picture or sound,” he explains. “Headlights bouncing across the scene, slamming car doors, idling cars, long distance from the screen itself are all a bummer if it’s a movie you really want to see.”

“Palm Springs” at the drive-in. (Jeff Miller)

Perhaps this is why classic films rather new ones seem to fill the roster at most drive-ins at the moment. There are exceptions, however. Mission Tiki Drive-in in Pomona – one of the most popular local destinations since indoor movie theaters shut-down – has been offering new films, though most of them have also been available via video on demand (VOD) or on streaming services at the same time. Two anticipated 2020 titles – Spies Like Us and Palm Springs – were screened at local drive-ins while simultaneously debuting on Amazon and Hulu, respectively.

“It harkens back to a time when going to movies was just a thing to do to pass the time,” adds Rosa. “But for me personally if I can’t watch the movie with no distractions (which to be fair hasn’t been the case in the theaters for a long while, and seems to be getting worse with things like table service) I’d rather just stay home and have a better experience there.”

Without a lot of other options for safe outdoor activities, even movie fans like Rosa seem to be opening up to the drive-in experience, regardless of prior opinion. If coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s an appreciation for a lot of the things we used to take for granted. Being entertained while in our cars and sharing an experience – even if we are somewhat separated while doing so – is all we got right now and when we start to go stir-crazy indoors, it’s still a novel option.

(Courtesy Mission Tiki Drive-in)

If you decide to incorporate some history lessons into the activity as the colorful Mr. Phoenix advises, novel and nostalgic are what you’ll be in store for. He has suggestions, too.

“The best drive-in movie theater experiences in all of Southern California include four original old school classic spots still standing,” he shares. “The Rodium in Redondo Beach, where the screen tower is a Mid-Century modern architectural masterpiece and the sign out front will blow your Mid-Century space-age style lovin’ mind!”

“Then there’s the Mission Tiki,” he continues. “It’s been there since 1956. It’s got four screens and it was made over by lovers of master tiki craft about 10-12 years ago. They gave it a tiki overhaul which is fantastic because now it looks genuine of the era. “

Phoenix’s other two faves include the Rubidoux Drive-in the Inland Empire (“it’s a total time warp”) and the Van Buren Drive-in located in Riverside. “Those are the four drive-ins that are survivors. They’re out there and I’m glad they’re out there because if you want layers of time, and if you want the time honored authentic traditional experience, they are where you must go,” he enthuses.

Though Wilmington and Pomona might seem like quite a drive out of L.A. just for a movie, Phoenix thinks they are “destination experiences that are worth traveling for.” As a movie critic who sees a lot of films, and a mom looking for safe outside distractions, we agree.

“It’s about getting out of the house and staying out of the house and having a time-honored experience while just feeling like you’ve done something,” insists Phoenix. “It is a classic American experience. Car culture invaded America a long time ago but we do it better and more frequently than everybody else. At the end of day, the way things are going, we’re gonna have a drive-thru and drive-in culture once again, so let’s enjoy it.”

 

Roll into the following next time you need to get out and be entertained: 

Paramount Twin Drive-In, 7770 Rosecrans Ave., Paramount

Vineland Drive-In 443 N Vineland Ave, City of Industry

Mission Tiki Drive-In 10798 Ramona Ave., Montclair/Pomona

Van Buren Drive-In 3035 Van Buren Blvd, Riverside

Rubidoux Drive-In 3770 Opal St., Riverside

Rodium Drive-in, 2500 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach

Tribeca Drive-in at the Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Dr. Pasadena

Level 8 Drive-in at the Glendale Americana, 889 Americana Way, Glendale

Voss Events Drag N’ Drive at the Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Dr. Pasadena