Amid COVID-19 restrictions, the drive-in movie theatre is poised for a comeback in Vancouver

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      For your grandparents’ generation, the idea of drive-in theatres conjures memories of first dates in the front seats of Chevy Bel Airs and Chrysler Plymouth Furys, listening to Beach Party or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman on a scratchy speaker.

      For your parents, it brings to mind wearing pyjamas and piling into sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon, waiting for the dancing hot dog to cue snack time on-screen.

      And for you? It’s back to the future: the drive-in is now seeing a return you’ll forever associate with COVID-19.

      At the drive-in’s height, thousands dotted North America. But thanks to the rise of the multiplex, digital projectors, video stores, and streaming—not to mention the decline of car culture—the number here in B.C. had been reduced to just three: the Starlight Drive-In located in Enderby; the Park Drive-In Theater in Prince George; and the Twilight Drive-In in Aldergrove.

      Throughout the pandemic, the Twilight has been drawing people in droves (with new capacity limits, plus a requirement that everyone must be in a car). But now as many as three different groups are trying to secure large parking-lot areas in the heart of Vancouver for a new style of pandemic-era movie-watching. And the plans being bounced around go beyond nostalgic fare and into everything from screening culturally diverse programming to live events like concerts and grad ceremonies. Even the concession stands may look different than you’d expect.

      That said, the proposals are inextricably tied up with nostalgia—which takes different forms, depending on who you speak to. “For me, coming from England, we didn’t have drive-ins, so for me as a young film nerd, the idea of the drive-in is almost wrapped up in that mythological lore of American cinema from the ’60s and ’70s,” says Tom Charity, year-round programmer at the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the local organizations vying to set up a major drive-in screen here. “It was when American film was cool and there was that mythology of Roger Corman, the drive-in king and a mentor to Scorsese and Coppola and Demme.”

      At press time, all that stood in the way was health-authority approval and city permits. VIFF, Point Blank Shows (headed by Howard Blank, past chair of Variety BC, working with Famous Artists Ltd. president Bill Allman and HiKu Productions’ Scott Hinde), and Fresh Air Cinema (a group known for staging outdoor screenings in Stanley Park each summer, and one that’s already held a drive-in in Pemberton since COVID lockdown hit) are all proposing concepts to get up and running by June.

      For VIFF, the drive-in offers a viable way of continuing to operate during social distancing and the temporary shutdown of its Vancity Theatre downtown. Though it’s already offering streaming of international art films on its website, “the drive-in is closer to what we love doing: giving audiences a collective and communal experience,” explains Charity. “It’s a cinemalike experience, but with that extra security.…We’re all extremely mindful of wanting this to be safe and we also want to do this with the full support of the City of Vancouver."

      For its part, VIFF doesn’t have the approval it needs to name the specific location it’s considering. “We’ve looked at every park, every parking lot, and every development site in the city and the margins of the city, and we’re doing mountains of research on who owns these lots,” Charity says. “We’re hoping to find the right space that will allow us the right capacity to bring in the right amount of vehicles that will allow us a break-even proposition.”

      Blank’s team is openly looking at the PNE, plus other sites near Vancouver, including a prominent location in Burnaby. Though all are reporting a positive response at the civic level, and though drive-ins are operating elsewhere in the province, Blank reveals the complexity of getting the project started within Vancouver: “It’s a bit of a Catch-22: the health authorities say you need city approval and the city is saying you need health approval,” he says. “If we can find a property long-term over the summer, then we can build a screen for a six-figure cost.”

      The Twilight Theatre in Aldergrove has been operating throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

      The proposals envision drive-ins with better screening technology than your parents or grandparents had, with FM-receiver sound.

      VIFF is working with events producer Promosa to build a high-calibre, 46-foot LED video screen, large enough to captivate an audience of 400 spectators (based on 200 vehicles with an average of two occupants per car). It would be bright enough to operate in full daylight, allowing VIFF to program matinées for families with young children. “That’s a big plus point, because we feel one of the underserved audiences is families,” Charity explains. “And parents are desperate to do something with their kids and get out of the house.”

      VIFF’s idea would be to operate Thursday through Sunday, with two screenings per day on weekdays and four on weekends.

      “The costs are tens of thousands of dollars,” Charity adds of the setup, echoing Blank. “It’s not possible as a one-off.”

      Where the fun comes is in programming. At VIFF, Charity admits regular festival-house fare might not play as well at a drive-in. “I don’t think people are interested in reading subtitles for two hours or pondering the mysteries of Andrei Tarkovsky,” he says.

      Big Hollywood releases are likely not an option. “I don’t think it’s going to be possible to do first-run movies,” explains Blank. “It would be a fortune; you can’t monetize it, probably.”

      “For the moment, Hollywood has put new movies on hold,” Charity adds. “We would definitely be offering cult-classic American movies interspersed with the Canadian fare that will work there. We were brainstorming what we might open with: Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, a First Nations zombie movie that didn’t get the theatrical release it deserved. And it speaks to the pandemic we’re in.”

      Amid his other brainstorm list: Deadpool, Blade Runner, Bridesmaids, Drive, To Live and Die in L.A., Wild at Heart, and American Graffiti.

      Blood Quantum is just one of the Canadian-made screening ideas VIFF thinks would make fantastic fare for its proposed summer drive-in.

      Blank is considering ideas that would play off the nostalgia of the format—retro fare like The Blob, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Grease, alongside Bollywood features that would bring in a more ethnically diverse audience. He’d also love to see classic-car nights.

      Perhaps the most compelling argument for the drive-ins is that other programming suffering from shutdown could use the venues. At VIFF, that may mean finding ways to give other film events like DOXA and Reel 2 Real a new venue, or partnering with a group like the Vancouver International Jazz Festival or Bard on the Beach for screenings or performances.The proposals include a stage with the screen—allowing for concerts, comedy shows, festival performances, and graduation ceremonies.

      As far as food concessions go, VIFF envisions a popcorn tent and food trucks. Meanwhile, Blank’s proposal has White Spot trucks delivering food to the hood of your car. In all cases, you’d order eats ahead on your phone.

      “There would be minimal physical interaction between occupants of cars and staff—people are buying tickets in advance,” Charity stresses. “There would be no reason that people would get out of their cars except to go to washrooms, and we can keep sanitizing them in a timely manner.”

      Although none of the proposals have gone before city council, at least one representative there was generally supportive—with one concern. “My first thought would be it’s not exactly like we’ve been prioritizing cars in the city of Vancouver,” commented Green Party Coun. Pete Fry. “My question would be ‘Is it accessible to people who don’t have cars? Is it accessible to someone on a bicycle?’ ”

      Whether you’ll need two wheels or four, and whether you’ll be able to pull out a lawn chair in front of your car—like your grandparents or parents did—remains to be seen. What the drive-in theatre might look like during pandemic times in Vancouver is a movie that has yet to be written.

      1958's The Blob is one of the retro flicks the Point Blank group is thinking of screening.