'It's quite magical': The revival of drive-in movies amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Moviegoers sit in the trunk of a car at the 5 Drive-In Theatre in Oakville, Ont., during the premier of Jay Baruchel's movie Random Acts of Violence, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Brian Allen loves sitting in his car, windows rolled down, listening to the murmur of excited chatter, as the warm glow of the sun fades and the cinema screen brightens. The flashing neon signs all around, the smell of popcorn wafting through the windows, tires crunching on the gravel as cars park — it all reminds him of his childhood.

The president of Premier Drive-In Theatres says nostalgia, as well as his firm belief that nothing could compare to an authentic drive-in movie experience, are what have kept him in the family businesses, which started in the 1950s and now operates five massive outdoor theatres in rural parts of Ontario.

The entire industry is picking up speed amid the COVID-19 pandemic as indoor movie theatres temporarily close, and Allen says that nothing is giving him more joy than witnessing people watch a movie under the stars for the first time.

“I can’t do it justice. It’s quite magical. In the middle of nowhere, you see everything light up at nighttime. It makes my heart flutter,” Allen told CTV News Toronto.

“I always believed in drive-ins. When I drive down the aisles and I hear the families giggling at a comedy … they seem to be happy, I know it makes people happy.”

While his theatres in Oakville, London, Barrie, Hamilton and Newmarket were always popular with people who loved outdoor cinema, Allen said the pandemic is bringing in a new crowd who are experiencing it all for the first time.

“A lot of people are discovering them again. They have always been popular, but right now, we have seen a huge surge with the pandemic just in terms of interest and the type of people coming. More people from the city,” he said. “There is a huge resurgence in understanding what a drive-in is.”

The Premier Drive-In Theatres operate at 50 per cent capacity right now. Allen said the cars are all social distancing, and the company is following all other COVID-19 protocols. 

“It feels like a safe place for people both emotionally and physically,” he said.

Allen’s theatres are not the only drive-ins available right now amid the pandemic. Several companies and organizations that never dabbled in outdoor cinema have launched their own pop-up drive-ins.

Ontario Place, which boasts the largest indoor IMAX theatre in the province, launched an outdoor pop-up drive-in theatre last year, and hosts a number of film festivals, as well as the Drive-InTO program.

“This was absolutely pandemic driven because people could stay in their cars and stay safe,” Glenn Shaver, a senior manager at Ontario Place, told CTV News Toronto. “The interesting thing we found last year, and going into this year, is that people have discovered drive-ins that have never been to one.”

“We’ve had a great response and we’ve had great feedback because it is a different theatrical experience.”

Shaver said Ontario Place won’t likely continue with their drive-in once the pandemic ends, and will instead focus on its indoor theatre.

Allen said his outdoor theatres will stick around as long as they can, and he expects the momentum to continue even after the pandemic because people are rediscovering the joys of outdoor cinema.

He said the decline in drive-ins was never due to a demand issue or a lack of popularity, but rather due to a supply issue as land became too costly. There are currently 16 drive-in theatres in Ontario, not including pop-ups. 

“Nobody lost their interest in drive-ins,” he said. “The problem was that real estate became worth far too much money.”

Allen said most of his theatres were built in the 1950s. He said they were built specifically as drive-ins unlike many of the pop-ups nowadays.

“They reflect the art of that period and the history is there,” he said. “We use the original neon signs and it’s not memorabilia that’s been redone, it’s all original.”

“In the old days, movie theatres and drive-ins all had individuality ... Our drive-ins all have an individual feel.”

He said all his theatres are sold out almost on a nightly bases.

“We're not going anywhere and the drive-ins will go on forever, as long as I can. It just so special,” he said. “I can't do it justice. Until the sun starts to drop, and the tires start crunching on the gravel, and the kids are on the swings, then you will understand what we do.”

When he was a young boy, Allen said his father would bring him and his siblings along when checking on the drive-ins at night. He said he remembers trying to catch the last glimpses of a movie as they would drive away – the screen getting smaller and smaller the further they got.

“I just thought it was magical,” he said. “People are very emotionally connected to drive-ins, to the locations.”