Cars lined up in front of a giant outdoor screen, headlights off, radios on and tuned in, cup holders filled with sodas and laps with bags of popcorn: the classic drive-in theatre experience.
In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, this movie-viewing way of the past has regained popularity. The push for safe, out-of-the-house activities resulted in a resurgence of sorts for drive-ins, and the pastime has soared back into prevalence.
Since the first drive-in opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, the experience became an iconic source of entertainment in America. Peak popularity for the outdoor screenings came in 1958, when the U.S. boasted 4,053 drive-ins, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
They began closing significantly throughout the late 70s and early 80s. Now, there are under 400 across the country. The decline is credited, in part, to rising land prices and increasing entertainment options. But like many trends, drive-ins were slowly starting to come back.
Then the pandemic hit.
“We felt that, with drive-ins, people were starting to like them again,” says John Stefanopoulos, co-owner of Four Brothers Drive-In Theatre, which opened in 2013 in Amenia, New York. “They were potentially going to become trendy. Then Covid hit, and it totally accelerated that. Covid actually really helped us in that it really brought people out to recognize how great drive-ins are.”
It’s not just the pandemic driving new traffic to drive-ins. Food and beverage programs and on-site amenities at new-age drive-ins may also account for the public’s piqued interest.
Four Brothers, for example, offers more than a screen to its 135 cars. In addition to a quick-serve shack spot stocked with classic drive-in eats like hotdogs and burgers, the Four Brother’s restaurant can cater to the vehicles, upgrading movie meal possibilities to spaghetti and meatballs, calamari or shrimp scampi. The drink list expands from milkshakes and sodas to craft cocktails, classic bottled beers like Sam Adams and Coors Light and wine—including Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc or William Hill Cabernet by the bottle—to sip during the films.
“We wanted a more creative, dynamic and exciting model,” says Stefanopoulos, who opened the drive in with his brother, Paul. “The restaurant was on the property first, so food was always at the forefront for us. And we knew that in being in the small town that we’re in, if you want to generate business, it has to be special.”
The location offers a firepit and golf course for more on-site entertainment. And for drive-in goers who don’t want to drive home, Four Brothers has space for camping and a rentable, vintage airstream dubbed Hotel Caravana.
“We put together an actual menu, created by a chef, and we started doing food items from scratch,” says Chris Denny, who owns Doc’s with his wife, Sarah. “We smoke our own brisket, make our sauces from scratch and offer vegan and vegetarian options.”
Doc’s saw a significant boost in ticket sales after the pandemic hit, as Texans, especially families, explored safe entertainment options during lockdown.
The drive-in has served beer and wine from a roof-deck bar, Mama Merlots, since it opened in 2018. This year, they plan to take the drink list to the next level. The duo is opening an underground 1920s inspired bar area featuring a full cocktail list for guests to enjoy before or after a movie or bring to their cars for the show. Their property also offers tiny homes to rent for overnight stays.
In addition to sending more customers to drive-in theatres, the pandemic prompted some restaurants and tasting rooms to pop-up projectors on their properties to keep customers coming.
There, the full food and beverage menu is available for order to guests’ cars. To drink, an everchanging wine selection and a long list of cocktails including staples like an old-fashioned or intricate concoctions made with spirits from Farmers & Distillers, on of Moco’s sibling restaurants. Kettle corn tops the food menu for a cinema-inspired snack, but a full list with burgers, handmade pastas and seafood round out the options for hungrier guests. The movies, offered every Wednesday night, have been hugely popular—selling out nearly every screening.
“It was a little bit of awesome creativity, out of necessity,” says Dawn Vileno, Founding Farmers managing partner. “For us to figure out how to survive, some pretty interesting ideas bubbled up. And some, like this one, really work.”
“We got shut down on March 17, by the state of Oregon, for two and a half months. And we’re like, ‘how do we stay engaged with the community?'” says Natasha Skov, the tasting room general manager and daughter of Sunshine Mill owners James and Molli Martin. “We used to do these movies, in which we would just have people bring their lawn chairs and sit outside. And so, we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we try a drive-in?'”
After a positive reaction from guests, Sunshine Mill decided to upgrade their small screen to a larger, more sturdy option and lean into the idea.
The Martin’s in-town restaurant, The Baldwin Saloon, delivers to the winery, offering gourmet meals like baked halibut to movie watchers. Antipasto platters and other appetizers typically served in the winery’s tasting room are also available. Wines are served by the bottle—a Syrah and a New World, steel-aged Chardonnay among the most popular. Local beer and cider selection are also on the menu. Beer from local Freebridge Brewing and local cider selection from Slopeswell Cider Co. and Rivercider are also on the menu.
These drive-in operators are optimistic about the future and continue to recognize an increased interest in outdoor screenings.
At Sunshine Mill, they plan to continue the showings as long as the interest is there. “We weren’t sure once reopening started happening if people were still going to come,” says Skov. “But they are.”
Last Updated: May 8, 2023