In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Americans across the country – from Pennsylvania to South Dakota, California to Idaho – are seeking shared experiences and togetherness through a revitalization of a classic American pastime: the drive-in movie theater.
In societies around the world, the cinema is a place that brings individuals from different backgrounds together for a shared cultural experience. For a few hours, watching a film in a movie theater creates a sense of community with strangers as you laugh, cry and experience a range of emotions alongside each other.
The car occupies a unique quasi-public space: you are in your own bubble, but still very much in public and interacting with others. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed theaters, Americans, who have an outsized cultural attachment to their cars, turned to their vehicles to continue to see movies and experience a sense of community while also adhering to social distancing during the pandemic. Drive-ins started having a comeback.
Drive-ins combine several of America’s core cultural obsessions in one: personal freedom, a proximity to the outdoors, cars, junk food, comfort and of course, Hollywood. Down from a height of over 4,000 in the 1950s, there are still about 325 permanent drive-in theaters in operation in the US. It is primarily an American cultural phenomenon. During the years when drive-ins were at the height of their popularity, in the post-WWII era, only a few hundred were built outside the United States, mostly in Canada and Australia.
For the historic drive-ins that remain, the pandemic brought a revitalization of their business. At Shankweiler’s in Orefield, Pennsylvania, the oldest operating drive-in in the world, new visitors started showing up to join their loyal customer base. In Mitchell, South Dakota, the Starlite Drive-In Theatre reopened after being closed for years. When the pandemic forced the owners to shut down their indoor theaters, they borrowed a digital projector from indoors and rebooted the drive-in business. In places without a permanent drive-in, pop-ups have appeared in empty parking lots and fields. Drive-in owners are seeing that these new customers are continuing to return after discovering the delight of the drive-in and now perceive that the revitalization of their businesses will continue long after the pandemic.
The pandemic has forced us, as individuals, to retreat even more deeply into our own, personal bubbles. The public interactions that used to bring us together, with our different backgrounds and experiences, have mostly disappeared from our lives, heightening our divisions during a particularly contentious time in US history. However, everywhere in the country, at the drive-ins, I felt a sense of hope that society shares a desire to come together again. During the height of the pandemic, the drive-in visitors I met were seeking the feeling of being alone together; sharing the same experience with others while being safely isolated in their own bubble.
As we move forward as a society in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, shared cultural experiences are crucial, even if it is simply coming together to share the same movie with others, under the stars.