Jul 4, 2020 - Economy

Drive-in movie theaters are making a comeback

Illustration of a movie projector projecting light and vintage cars against a night sky

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Drive-in movie theaters, the symbol of a bygone era before cellphones and constant distraction, are suddenly reemerging as a popular form of entertainment during the coronavirus crisis.

Why it matters: Indoor movie theaters are closed, but people still crave entertainment and a chance to get out of their houses. Watching a movie from the safety of a car is the next best thing.

Driving the news: Ahead of the July 4th weekend, Walmart announced a partnership with Tribeca Enterprises, which hosts the annual Tribeca Film Festival, to convert 160 store locations into makeshift drive-in movie theaters.

  • Starting in August, America's biggest retailer says it will be putting on "safe, socially distanced drive-in events at Walmart Supercenters across America."
  • The move comes shortly after Tribeca announced its own nationwide drive-in summer movie series, which will include screenings of timeless classics like"'Jaws" and "Apollo 13" at drive-in theaters and other venues in Los Angeles, New York and other cities nationwide.
  • Walmart will air films that coincide with the Tribeca summer series lineup.
  • The screenings will feature appearances from stars as well as concessions delivered to customer vehicles, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Catch up quick: At its peak, the drive-in industry boasted more than 4,000 theaters nationwide in the 1950s. Now, however, there aren't a lot of easily accessible drive-ins.

  • Before makeshift theaters started popping up around the country at arenas and sports venues, there were only 305 drive-in sites in the country, with most of them concentrated in New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and California.
  • Many new drive-in pop-ups are still located in or around big cities at arenas.

The big picture: The coronavirus pandemic has completely upended the theater industry, forcing most major exhibitors like AMC, Regal and Cinemark to shut down for many months.

  • They continue to push back re-opening dates as Hollywood blockbusters continue to get postponed due to the pandemic.

Be smart: Drive-in theaters, like indoor theaters, still make the majority of their money off of concessions. While many drive-ins will offer concessions, consumers will likely be weighing the transactional risk of buying snacks from a vendor versus packing their own in the car.

What's next: It's not just the movie industry. Drive-in concerts are also all the rage during the coronavirus era.

  • Live Nation, the event promotion and venue company, announced its first-ever drive-in concert series in the U.S. for July.

Go deeper: Movie theaters face uncertain future as country reopens

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