Surge in drive-in cinemas could signal phased return of live experiences

Socially distanced return to experiences could see people being entertained from comfort of their cars.

Drive-ins: @TheDriveIn is hosting events from July
Drive-ins: @TheDriveIn is hosting events from July

Drive-ins are set to capture the imagination of consumers this summer, as the live experience and entertainment industries explore post-pandemic offerings.

With the approaching of 4 July, the date given by the government for the hospitality industry to slowly resume operations while adhering to social distancing, a number of brands and establishments are looking to drive-in cinemas as a first step in the return to normality.

The English National Opera is one of the cultural institutions that has already developed a socially distanced entertainment plan using a drive-in format. Its "Drive and Live" series will be taking place in September within the grounds of north London's Alexandra Palace, where singers and musicians will be positioned apart for 12 live performances of a 90-minute version of La bohème, plus a one-hour family-friendly version of The Magic Flute. The audience will watch from within the safety of their own vehicles – something that will allow people to continue to social distance if this is still deemed a necessity in the autumn.

Meanwhile, @TheDriveIn is a touring cinema concept that has a 12-week schedule of events starting in July. Run by Mainstage Festivals, the project is the result of the company’s temporary pivot away from its core festival business. Each screening will accommodate 100-150 cars, toilets will have "supermarket-esque" queuing systems, and food and drinks can be ordered through an app and delivered to cars. 

Alan Crofton, event director at @TheDriveIn, told Campaign that, in addition to providing a different kind of experience, the events would be a first step back towards live entertainment for an experience-savvy crowd while offering work for financially impacted freelance staff.

Crofton explained: "We’ve been very hard hit with the timeline of when things will go back to normality. For festivals, it’s the furthest away [to return]. We were thinking about what would be possible with social distancing and came to a drive-in cinema concept."

The drive-in format has been explored by brands in the past. XYZ created the "Five drive" for Channel 5 in 2010, using large-screen trucks to play movies across cities in England and Scotland.

"I think drive-in movies could very easily be organised in order to ensure social distancing. All food and beverages were delivered direct to people’s cars, so the only reason for them to leave their cars would be to use the toilets," Will Mould, managing director at XYZ, said.

He believes that, although that project took place 10 years ago, the logistics could easily be adapted to be fit for 2020. Mould added: "One element that we used that could work really well in a socially distanced world is the fact that for each location we purchased an FM radio licence, which was very cheap to do. We would then play the soundtrack of the film into people’s car stereo systems via the radio. Obviously, it’s all digital radio now, but the principle remains the same."

"Five drive" is just one iteration of the tried-and-tested drive-in format, and while brands are exploring the concept, cinema companies including Curzon and outdoor specialists Luna Cinema are also developing a slate of entertainment to welcome the public post-lockdown.

The developments have been welcomed by event-staffing agencies, as drive-ins can offer a safe return to work for many. Chris Wareham, managing director of Mash Staffing, explained the agency has already been working on a training module to enable staff to deliver Covid-19-ready experiences.

He noted: "Having friendly and efficient staff on hand to give clear instructions, answer questions and deliver food-and-drink orders is crucial to this success. But guests also need to be confident that staff are meeting new standards of health and safety to keep everyone safe."

So with the first @TheDriveIn event planned to take place in six weeks, the tentative step back to face-to-face experiences now has a firm date in the diary.

Crofton added: "Realistically, it’s very hard for anyone to gauge a timeline of when we might be back in nightclubs or back in festival fields, and I hope this gives a step towards that. I am confident that it will help as it will be an example of people doing this safely and will run in a way that can be adaptable."