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Here’s what’s new at the drive-in

The tradition of watching movies from a car saw a revival over the past year—and this time it’s got some new features.

Here’s what’s new at the drive-in
[Illustration: Ahmet Iltas]
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New York City–based Rooftop Films has specialized in outdoor pop-up screenings of independent and foreign movies since 1996, but as the pandemic began, Rooftop president Dan Nuxoll realized drive-ins might be the only safe way to show films. He teamed with the Museum of the Moving Image and the New York Hall of Science to open the first two permanent drive-ins (in Brooklyn and Queens) to operate in the city since the early 1980s. The company now gets calls from mainstream studios to screen new releases. More than 60 years after the drive-in industry peaked (with 4,053 facilities in 1958; down to about 300 by 2018), new drive-ins are cropping up across America. Some, such as Parking Lot Theaters, in Philadelphia, or the Monroe Street Drive-In, in Detroit, are pop-ups; others, such as downtown Miami’s Nite Owl, are permanent. Austin-based Ultimate Outdoor Entertainment (UOE) is transforming its pop-up in East Austin to a permanent drive-in and eyeing prospective sites throughout Texas. Founder Darrell Landers says developers are “knocking down his door” to propose new locations. Here are some of the elements of the new drive-in experience.

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1. Ticketing

Watching movies in your car may feel wonderfully retro, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the ticketing process. New and thriving drive-ins have an effective social media strategy and a web presence that facilitates cashless, advance ticket sales. For its New York drive-ins, Rooftop uses Eventbrite and a scanning system that can read digital tickets through car-window glass.

2. Audio

Raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember the clunky drive-in speakers that attached to half-rolled car windows. Today’s drive-in audio is delivered via FM, with the channel listed on the big screen. Austin’s UOE theater offers a mobile audio app that’s Bluetooth compatible and an isolated Wi-Fi network.

3. Projector

Both Rooftop and UOE use state-of-the-art 4K resolution, 30,000 lumens laser projectors. Nite Owl also employs a classic 35mm projector from within an aluminum Airstream trailer that’s been transformed into a projection booth.

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4. Screen

Today’s typical pop-up outdoor movie event features a modular LED screen that’s easily visible during sunny matinees. Also popular: inflatable screens made of weath­erproof plastic. A standard screen size for pop-ups is 15′ x 8′, but the permanent screen at the Nite Owl is a whopping 53′ x 30′.

5. Concessions

Rooftop customers use Seamless or Grubhub to order food from local vendors; UOE affixes QR codes to parking-space markers, allowing patrons to have food sold on premises delivered by a carhop. If that isn’t enough to inspire nostalgia, a box of their popcorn is only two bucks.

About the author

Jay Woodruff is a senior editor at Fast Company. After helping launch the quarterly DoubleTake, he joined Esquire and later held senior editorial positions at Entertainment Weekly and oversaw digital at Maxim, Blender and Stuff

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