Drive-In Movie Theaters Thrive Despite Lack of New Titles: "People Just Want to Get Out"

German drive-in theater
INA FASSBENDER, AFP via Getty Images

In the age of social distancing, drive-in ticket sales in Germany and South Korea are booming.

We pull into the drive-in, dad and mom in front, the kids in the back in their pajamas, fighting. Dad parks, turns off the engine and turns to snap at the kids: "Stop hitting each other! The movie's about to start!"

It could be 1978 and I'm 7, waiting to see The Cat From Outer Space at the Valley Drive-In in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Instead, I'm in Cologne, Germany. This is 2020. And I'm the dad in the front seat. My daughters, reluctantly, stop fighting, put their smartphones away and sit back to enjoy what for them is an entirely new experience: watching a movie, in a field, in the car.

Regular German cinemas, like those across most the world, remain closed due to the coronavirus. But drive-ins, those anachronistic remnants of a cinema industry from a generation past, are packing them in.

Autokino Essen, one of only two year-round drive-in theaters in Germany, has sold out every screening since the country went into lockdown in early March. On April 6, it sold 500 tickets for Manta Manta, a German comedy that was a huge hit. In 1991.

"It doesn't matter what we show, people just want to get out and watch a movie," says Frank Peciak, manager of Autokino Essen. "We're sold out weeks in advance."

Our "autokino" in Cologne is also booked solid. Only 250 cars are allowed on the 1,000-capacity lot, to comply with social-distancing measures, and when we drive in, a gloved attendee scans our tickets through the closed window. Safety first.

But when the sun goes down and the movie starts, it feels like a regular night out — something we haven't had in a long time. 

That pent-up demand — "methadone for cinema junkies" is what one German drive-in, on its Facebook page, calls its service — is driving a mini-boom in the drive-in business.

Alongside the dozen or so older theaters in operation across the country, makeshift drive-ins are popping up everywhere. D.Live, an events management company, set up one in the parking lot of the Dusseldorf Trade Fair, premiering on April 8 with a sold-out screening of Lindenberg!, a local musical biopic.

Loe Studios, an indie cinema in the German town of Marl, found an open lot behind a biker bar and put up a 640 square foot LED screen. Opening night on April 6 — a double bill of The Lion King and Parasite — sold out in a matter of hours.

"In the beginning, the authorities were worried there might be a health risk,” says Heiko Desch of Drive In, which operates a chain of theaters, “but we haven't had any issues. People are told to keep in their cars, except to visit the restrooms, and the entire operation is hands-free."

South Korea has also seen a surge in business for drive-in theaters since the country tightened its coronavirus measures in February, shutting regular cinemas. Cine 80, a 170-car theater in Daegu, at the epicenter of Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak, ticket sales are up 20 percent for films such as the Judy Garland biopic Judy and the horror title The Turning, according to owner Seong-soo Kim. Jayuro Drive-in, located in a Seoul suburb, saw a 30 percent sales spike.

"We've managed to maintain [our business] since the outbreak," says Kim. "People feel the drive-ins are a safer option to enjoy their cultural life."

As in Germany, pop-up drive-ins are being set up in public parks and parking lots across the country. In South Korea, local governments are getting involved. The Nowon District in eastern Seoul set up an 1,100 square foot screen in a local park and is showing older films for free to the car-bound public. Oh Seung-rok, the chief of Nowon District, suggested local citizens take advantage of the city's drive-ins to relieve "emotional distress" caused by quarantine and social distancing measures.

Currently, fewer than 25 of the 320 or so drive-ins in the U.S. are open for business. Ticket sales have been steady, but not spectacular, according to those with access to grosses. (A major issue is a lack of new Hollywood product.)

On April 12, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he was considering allowing drive-ins to reopen, even as regular theaters, judged nonessential businesses, stay shut. "Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theater. You’re in the car with the same people," Cuomo said during his daily briefing.

At least two New York theaters, the Four Brothers in Amenia and the Warwick Drive-In in Warwick, have requested waivers from the nonessential restrictions.

"Whatever the state wants us to do, we're willing to do," Warwick Drive-In owner Beth Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We want people to enjoy going out, but in a safe environment. If you're in your car with an average family — two parents in the front seat and two kids in the back — you're sitting in a car with people you're with in the house. It's a little outing."

Brian Allen, the president of Canadian drive-in chain Premier Operating, was forced to close his five theaters in southern Ontario in March at the urging of local health authorities. "But we believe drive-ins may be one of the first things that open up when allowed," he says. Allen notes that his theaters try to evoke the peak era of the drive-ins in the 1950s and '60s. "We play the Canadian anthem before movies. We still have neon signs,” he says. “There's camaraderie. [It's one of the] very few places where people can assemble anymore."

The Roxborough family outing, at least, was a success. "Weird, but cool," was my 15-year-old's assessment. But her 13-year-old sister summed up the drive-in's true appeal in the coronavirus era: "It's just fun to be out of the house."

Soomee Park, Etan Vlessing and Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.