Will Drive-In Movie Theaters Make A Comeback?

The last movie I saw before the shelter-in-place order took effect in California was “Bloodshot” starring Vin Diesel. With people already staying away from the movie theaters, two-dozen people watched the Saturday afternoon IMAX showing in their own row for proper social distancing. Since then I missed going out to the movies every weekend to break up the week-to-week grind. Every day in Silicon Valley is Christmas morning with few people walking about and cars on the street.

If only there was an alternative for watching movies at the movie theaters. Silicon Valley still has a drive-in movie theater called the Capitol Drive-In in San Jose. The chain that operates that location is West Wind Drive-In, which has its Sacramento, CA, and Glendale, AZ, locations open for business during the pandemic. Other regional drive-ins in the U.S. are also open for business.

Will drive-in movie theaters make a comeback for today’s social distancing?


The last movie I saw at the Capitol Drive-In was Disney’s “Return from Witch Mountain” in 1978. My baby niece and I sat in the front seat while my older brother and his wife made out in the backseat. The same backseat where they conceived her three years earlier. I’m not sure if them making out in the backseat was worse than holding my baby niece’s hand while they made out on the top of the Ferris wheel at Frontier Village.

Drive-ins faded away over the last 40 years for a variety of reasons:

  • Increasing land prices and property taxes made redevelopment attractive to owners.
  • Converting 35mm film to digital cost twice as much as an indoor movie theater.
  • Teenagers found more convenient places to make babies borrowing the family car.

Five to ten percent of drive-ins opened for business are in areas with fewer cases of the coronavirus and/or looser social distancing restrictions. For the two opened West Wind Drive-In locations, Sacramento County in California has 653 confirmed cases, and Maricopa County in Arizona has 1,891 confirmed cases (as of Saturday, April 11, 2020). Based on the stricter restrictions imposed on the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Glendale must be looser in comparison. Otherwise, the San Jose and Concord drive-ins should be open.

Those two locations have an interesting list of social distancing restrictions.

  • People must stay in their cars at all times except to visit the restroom.
  • You may not park your vehicle within ten feet of another vehicle
  • Limited number of people in restroom at a time except adult with child
  • Concession are closed.
  • Customers who do not follow these rules will be asked to leave.

In short, bring your own food, stay inside your car and lock the doors.

What movies are being shown at the West Wind Drive-Ins? Movies that came out prior to the shelter-in-place orders: “Bad Boys For Life,” “The Call of The Wild,” “Like A Boss,” “Onward” and “The Hunt”. Many of these movies are available to buy and/or rent online because the studios aren’t waiting 90 days after the theater release. The only new movie that West Wind does have is “Trolls World Tour,” which is also available online.

Will drive-in movie theaters make a comeback? If shelter-in-place orders remain in place beyond summer, existing drive-ins that can open for business will do quite well. Until the pandemic is over, the long-term prospects are uncertain for both drive-ins and indoor movie theaters.

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