Drive-in revival

A pandemic creates a new generation of fans for the outdoor screen

  • May 17, 2021
  • 1,724 words
  • 7 minutes
WIFF Under the Stars. (Downtown Windsor BIA)
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Enderby. Brackley Beach. Saint-Eustache. Flin Flon. Lindsay. Inuvik.

In the summer of 2020 — the first summer of COVID-19 — Canadians revisited an outdoor pastime that celebrates its 91st birthday this year. With regular movie theatres closed, drive-ins were suddenly all the rage. Nostalgia buffs rubbed shoulders (figuratively, of course) with a new generation of drive-in movie fans.

Drive-in theatres once dotted the landscape. There are still between 25 and 35 permanent drive-ins, scattered across several provinces, as well as scores of temporary — or “pop up” — drive-ins that make an appearance for days or weeks at a time.

There are many theories for the decline of the drive-in — from more than 4,000 screens across North America pre-1970 to about 400 today. Multiplexes attached to malls. Cable TV. Streaming services. Smaller cars. The list is long.

But COVID-19 has temporarily reversed the trend. The summer of 2020 was the year of the drive-in comeback.

“Who could have guessed,” says April Wright, the filmmaker behind 2013’s Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie. “I would love to see how the overall numbers are impacted. Around the world, you’re seeing drive-ins going up.” This has included stadiums being repurposed and Walmart parking lots being commandeered. Even indoor theatres — verboten during lockdowns — have been getting in on the game. If there’s a parking lot and a blank wall, movies are moving outside.

It’s been a surreal year for those in the drive-in business. “In February 2020, I attended a conference for drive-in owners,” says Wright. “The conversation was very much about raising awareness that drive-ins still exist. We were wondering whether we should hire a PR firm.” Just months later, drive-ins were making headlines across North America as the place to put the social in social distancing.

Sussex Drive In (Photo: Sussex Drive In)
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Not many modern-day business plans include a global pandemic, and Don Monahan’s plan for the Sussex Drive In and Campground in Sussex, N.B., was no exception. “We had a great first year,” says Monahan, who bought the Sussex in February 2019 with his partner Tina Monahan. “Year two projections were looking good, and then — well, who plans for something like Covid?”

Monahan was born and raised in Petit Codiac and passed the Sussex Drive-In weekly when he was a child. Now based in Montreal, he’d been looking for something to invest in that would bring him back to his roots in New Brunswick. As regular seasonal campers at the attached Sussex KOA, he and Tina saw an opportunity to do just that.

The Sussex was built in 1966. “The campground came later,” says Monahan of the property’s history. Daylight savings time in the Atlantic province meant movies started and ended later. “People eventually just started pitching tents or parking their vans alongside, spending the night before heading home in the morning. Eventually, the area became a regular campground.

Five decades later, the Sussex is a hot destination, COVID-19 or not. The campground offers cabins with a “drive-in view” and the entire property isn’t far from the Kennebecasis River and Fundy National Park. “New Brunswick is known as the drive-through province,” jokes Monahan. “You’re either going through it on your way to P.E.I. or to the rest of Canada. We like to say you might as well ‘drive in’ while you’re driving through.”

“Even before Covid it was our intention to do more than just movies with the Sussex,” says Monahan. “2020 just catapulted us ahead of where we anticipated.” The New Brunswick property hosted drive-in concerts, provided a home for high school graduations and hosted Atlantic bubble musical and comedy artists live. Fireworks and food truck festivals were also on offer during the season.

The border to the U.S. closed and the Atlantic bubble went into effect, but Monahan still saw visitors from all over New Brunswick. Special streaming events and popular “retro” movies helped. “It turns out that the drive-in was the ultimate business to be in during Covid,” says Monahan.

The 5. (Photo: April Wright)
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Across the country, it’s about 500 kilometres from Jason Benko’s home in Calgary, Alta., to his summer property in the Shuswap Valley in B.C. It’s a trip he makes every summer, and every summer includes a trip to the Starlite Drive-In in Enderby, B.C. “I’ve been going to the Starlite for 15 years,” says Benko. “I started out eating chicken wings in a 4Runner with my bulldog. Now I’m enjoying it with my two sons stretched out in the bed of my pickup.”

Last year was the first trip to the drive-in for Benko’s five-year-old son. In a summer filled with uncertainty, their visits to the drive-in offered a brief escape from the pandemic. “It’s like, the world’s not ending; we can still go to the drive-in,” says Benko. “Just for four or five hours, you’re with your family, things seem normal. It’s just this little drive-in in the middle of nowhere. The charm of it, lying under the stars. It’s like getting lost on purpose.”

The typical drive-in theatre might seem to be, as Benko says, “in the middle of nowhere” but it turns out even nowhere is somewhere to go.

Starlight in Hamilton. (Photo: Amanda Wright)
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You can hear the excitement in Brian Allen’s voice when he talks about his drive-in theatres. The family’s been in the movie business since 1900 and started acquiring drive-ins in 1961. Today, the family’s outdoor screens are dotted across Southwestern Ontario.

“If I don’t have a dancing hotdog, something’s missing,” says Allen. He calls himself a “purist,” drawing a distinction between permanent screens like his and the temporary, pop-up style that has proliferated in the last 20 years. Like most drive-in owners and attendees, it’s not hard to get him talking about the drive-in.

“Every night is a ‘show,’” says Allen. Every evening includes the National Film Board’s version of “O Canada,” the countdown clock on screen and the traditional intermission dancing hot dog clips.

Allen’s theatres in Oakville (The 5), Newmarket (Stardust) and Hamilton (Starlite) opened for business early this year — on March 5 with a rare new release: Tom & Jerry. And last year, they extended the season well into the winter. “We ran until December 23, 2020, when the province went into lockdown,” says Allen. “We had planned to stay open through the end of December.”

By contrast, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic circle, visitors to the temporary drive-in in Inuvik have only a small window of time for outdoor movie watching.

“We wanted an activity that was COVID-friendly,” says Jackie Challis, Inuvik’s director of tourism and economic development. “But it’s tricky when you get 56 days of daylight and most of the rest of the year is too cold.” The community settled on a few days in September, and it was still necessary to wait until 10 or 11 p.m. to start the movie.

“It was really well attended,” says Challis of the community-driven attraction. A poll was conducted to choose the movie (Jurassic Park) and the local TV cable station handled the sound broadcast. The evenings were capped off with a stunning view of the aurora borealis, as if to remind everyone that, in Canada, the environment has its own version of entertainment blockbusters.

WIFF Under the Stars. (Photo: Windsor International Film Festival)
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“They’re doing it wrong,” I whisper to my daughter as we follow the volunteer’s parking directions. It’s the first night of the Windsor International Film Festival’s “WIFF Under the Stars,” a temporary waterfront drive-in set up, in part, to compensate for the cancellation of the festival in 2020. We’re part of the guinea-pig audience selected to test out their parking system. The parking area is flat so our Jeep Compass should be in the last few rows, rather than at the front.

“Once we realized we couldn’t have the festival, we also realized doing nothing was not an option,” says Vincent Georgie, WIFF’s director. “A drive-in was safe, on brand and interesting.” The WIFF team was still striving for improvement, even after the first opening credits rolled. “We spent more time tinkering with parking arrangements than almost anything.”

The two-week experiment was a resounding success. The city’s Festival Plaza welcomed hundreds of visitors from Southwestern Ontario. Georgie saw rented pickup trucks with mattresses in the back, kids in their pajamas, and local car enthusiasts with their vintage autos. “One guy from Chatham came twice a week,” says Georgie. “People really got into it, bringing their takeout from local restaurants, walking the river trail before shows.”

The Mustang, in Guelph. (Photo: Amanda Wright)
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Premier Theatres — Allen’s chain — still runs five locations in the population dense part of the province. It’s his love of the business that keeps him going, since drive-in profits are tricky. His Hamilton screen stands as an oasis in the midst of urban sprawl. It’s now surrounded by residential development and feels very much in the middle of town.

That’s the subtext in Wright’s film. “Decisions made for purely financial reasons — like closing drive-ins, selling land — are not always what’s best for the community,” she says. The closing of so many drive-ins through the 1970s and 1980s replaced outdoor gathering places with big-box stores, subdivisions and parking lots. “Those kinds of trade-offs do harm.”

But Wright is hopeful about what the first pandemic summer taught us about the importance of sharing experiences. “In Covid, so many of us are living detached lives, and we’re realizing how much we need other human beings, not just to have something to do but to feed your soul.”

Social media is also a big factor in the drive-in’s comeback. Drone footage is shared on YouTube, guests share memories of their evenings on Instagram and the drive-ins are building communities and conversations on their Facebook page. A whole new generation has been introduced to the outdoor big screen, and the idea that drive-in theatres can bring communities together in entirely new ways.

“Even if someone’s first trip to the drive-in was to see a high school graduation, now they know it’s there,” says Allen. I hope they see what it’s supposed to be, and that the memory carries over.”


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