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“You can’t just walk out of a drive-in,” Danny Zuko shouts after his love-interest Sandy as she flees his advances in the 1978 classic, Grease.
Surrounded on all sides by parked cars at a Monday night screening of the musical hit in Blackheath, south London, the words really hit home.
I’m at @TheDriveIn, an event set to tour 13 locations across the UK in as many weeks. During lockdown, nine new drive-in screens (The Drive-In Club, Adventure Drive-In, The Drive In, et cetera) popped up in London alone as film exhibitors and events companies pivoted their operations to accommodate social distancing rules.
The pandemic lockdown has hit the film sector hard, leading to shuttered cinemas, delayed releases and a box office slump. Though cinemas were given the green light to reopen from July 4, most are electing to stay shut for a few more weeks. Research by the Independent Cinema Office found the majority of smaller screens won’t be able to open until September.
In the meantime drive-in has been heralded as a panacea for cinema’s woes – or at least a stop-gap until the sector gets back on its feet. But without new releases, entertainment-starved Brits are making do with a drive-in lineup of goofy classics, or pre-pandemic blockbuster releases.
Through the window of my borrowed car, I make somewhat awkward eye contact with a fellow driver before a masked Just Eat employee delivers the chicken strips I ordered by scanning a QR code on a sign beside the car window. My dinner is safely conveyed to me on a bright orange tray.
While Travolta gyrates on the LED screen overhead, his voice seems oddly close, emanating from the portable FM radio – also delivered on an orange tray – perched on the dashboard. The sound is good, as is the chicken, and it’s a relief to be out of the flat, despite the hours spent in traffic to reach Greenwich. But I can’t hear the popcorn crunching, the coughs, or hushed mutters of anticipation. This is not cinema.
Recreating the cinema experience was not Alan Crofton’s intention. Usually festival director for Mainstage Festivals, the events specialist behind @TheDriveIn, Crofton only focused his efforts on drive-in after his summer schedule of festivals fell through. “Initially we were just trying a little project and to be honest it’s completely spiralled,” he says. The first round of tickets for the London events sold out in 55 seconds. “It just showed that it was the right thing for us to do and that people are ready to get out again.”
Crofton created @TheDriveIn as a night out, replete with stand-up comedy, ‘caraoke’ and roller skating waitstaff. “Over the years we’ve seen, pop-up cinemas, rooftop cinemas, and various other things, so why not have drive-ins?” says Crofton. The pivot to drive-in ensured his staff and freelancers were kept in work, he says.
A survey conducted by Bectu, the broadcasting and entertainment union, in March found that 71 per cent of freelancers working in the creative industries feared they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills because of the work they have lost due to the coronavirus. Some respite has appeared in the shape of a £1.5 billion rescue fund chancellor Rishi Sunak announced On July 5.
Other areas of the entertainment business are cottoning on to the drive-in opportunity. On the slate this summer are drive-in musical theatre performances, a stand-up comedy club, drag shows, plus an extensive calendar of musical acts from Live Nation.
The boom has created longed-for live opportunities for entertainers who have been relegated to Zoom shows for months. “There’s a lot of gigs,” says comedian Ivo Graham, who was booked alongside DJYoda to warm us up for the Grease screening. He found the experience surreal, and struggled without the “measurable, audible” gauge of audience reaction.
Beyond some prohibited horn honking, the car-bound audience at @TheDriveIn had little means to express their appreciation for Graham’s gags. “It’s not the ideal environment… but there’s something admirable about the spirit to try and put stuff on and create a sense of occasion,” he says. While I couldn’t hear their laughs, glancing around at my fellow drivers framed in the rolled-down windows, I felt something approaching a communal atmosphere.
George Wood, who founded outdoor cinema market leader The Luna Cinema 12 years ago, was never keen on drive-ins. “It feels so distanced from your fellow viewers, none of that communal feeling you get with our open air screenings,” he says. The Luna Cinema usually erects pop-up screens in parks and at stately homes, to which audiences can bring picnic chairs and blankets. When the pandemic hit he agreed to explore drive-in as a contingency.
But after three weeks of lockdown, it became the main focus. To quell Wood’s fears of clunky sound and fast-draining car batteries, his team developed an in-car wireless speaker with their sound partners, Orbital. The pop-up veterans have planned drive-in screenings at distinguished locations like Blenheim Palace and Warwick Castle.
So what impact have drive-ins like Luna and @TheDriveIn really had on the exhibitor sector? High-end Cinema chain Curzon considered a drive-in pivot when the scale of lockdown became apparent, but concluded that the business model was too different. “The people running these have a background in pop-up events, and much more experience in pulling something together at short notice,” CEO Philip Knatchbull told Wired in an email. He added that their home cinema service saw a huge uptick during lockdown, so this is where they concentrated resources.
That said, he doesn’t see why drive-ins can’t last beyond the summer. “We know that people are looking for quality experiences,” wrote Knatchbull. “If drive-in cinema provides that, then they can flourish.”
Luna’s Wood is currently planning car-free outdoor screens from the end of July alongside his drive-in programme. While he’d love to see drive-in become an annual fixture of the British summertime, he’s happy for them to remain a gateway back to true cinema. “I feel a sense of responsibility that we’ve got to do it really well and safely so people build the confidence to go back,” he says.
And finally, the question on everyone’s lips: what if you don’t have a car? Alan Crofton of @TheDriveIn laughs and tells me about some friends who plan to book an Uber before one of his screenings. “It’s probably not the cheapest way to do it but that’s one option,” he says. Alternatively, as the lockdown eases, he hopes to create a more accessible experience by providing picnic benches for the car-less. “For now we have to be as careful as possible about what we do and not rush into stuff.”
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