This is what going to a splashy new movie outside your house feels like right now
No encounters would happen because the premiere wasn’t taking place in a screening room or theater. It was at a drive-in; Blank was talking to a sea of cars. She stood at the front of the lot, her image projected on a massive screen, her voice piped into attendees’ cars via FM radio. Audience members expressed their appreciation not by clapping but the best way they could — with a cacophonous round of honking.
Around the country in recent weeks, similar surreal scenes have been playing out. In large metro hubs, like New York and Los Angeles, but also smaller cities from Indiana to Maine, people are flocking to drive-in screenings of splashy new movies. The events are part of the fall festival circuit in which film distributors present new movies around the U.S., the entertainment business’ equivalent of a barnstorming tour — only now they’ve been adapted for lockdown.
These stand-alone events, primarily at temporary facilities, tend to be a little more nimble and modern than the traditional drive-in, which is often located in a struggling urban area or a rural setting and has survived decades of declining business conditions. Those theaters — about 300 around the country — have seen a sales uptick during the pandemic, but rely on wide studio releases, which have been in short supply.
Yet drive-in gatherings have held out the coronavirus-era prospect that with a little ingenuity and several tons of protective steel, consumers can still leave their houses to be entertained. If the response to the pandemic has been dysfunctionally American, perhaps the solution, playing off a love of the automobile, can be quintessentially American.
Certainly, the demand exists. Over the past three weeks New Yorkers packed makeshift venues in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, showing just how much people right now want to consume entertainment with strangers, or at least seek respite from their spouses. Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old Version,” a semi-autobiographical story of a frustrated playwright who turns to hip-hop, would be released on Netflix the day after its premiere. But that didn’t stop several hundred people from paying $45 so they could sit next to other cars to see it.
Whether such acts are wise — whether drive-ins are a much-needed palliative for the endless couch-watching or just another grim reminder of all covid-19 has taken — is a complicated question, and one the Blank visit argued for and against.
On a patch of grass astride the Grand Central Parkway, a screen had been set up. About a half-hour before showtime, at twilight, a road leading to it saw headlights snaking single file, 50 vehicles long. A battalion of masked workers, some with airport-runway orange glow sticks, ran about, checking tickets and letting cars in a few at a time so they could sit on another portion of road before being allowed onto another road that would eventually lead to the patch. A commuter train rattled regularly overhead.
Everyone in line was a New Yorker who owns a car, or had been smart enough to befriend somebody who does. It was hard to resist thoughts of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode in which Larry David, hungry but locked out of his vehicle near a fast-food drive-through, decides to stand patiently between bumpers. He advances one car length at a time until reaching the order mic (but still can’t get served).
A 45-minute wait outside a traditional theater would normally mean a lot of commiseration, and new friends. Interacting with other filmgoers, however, wasn’t possible here; social contact was limited to a self-identified DJ Reborn on the drive-in radio offering cheerful shout-outs (“I hope you’re bingeing in your car,” she said, without identifying the object of the binge) and spinning 80s rock hits. If you’re going to sit tightly confined waiting endlessly in a geographic nether-space, the least you could ask for is some Prince and INXS in the background.
Upon finally reaching the scraggly patch, cars were greeted by a masked attendant who knocked on windows and reached in with bags of snacks. Another came by and took a food order. Filmgoers at festival drive-ins may not be moving around much, but at least they’re well-fed.
After being directed, by glow stick, to a precise spot, cars were met by another attendant. “Any problems, just flash your hazards,” one said, a surprisingly rugged replacement for the “visit our customer service window” of the ancient days of 2019. A large SUV blocked some smaller cars’ view. An attendant pondered the options and decided to allow some inching forward. Then he went down the line to make sure everyone’s headlights were off.
In March, when the pandemic hit, many theaters stayed open, even as the experience of attending them was decidedly weird. A visit to one involved the movie “Saint Frances,” one of the last of the pre-lockdown festival hits and a film that centers on a 34-year-old woman at a crossroads. “Version,” which Netflix bought for at least $5 million at Sundance, traffics in similar themes and, as a festival hit, serves as a kind of bookend to that movie. The main character had aged six years since March but then, who hasn’t?
The film started, and the drive-in’s limitations became clear. The screen was far. There was no way of knowing if your nearest neighbor was watching the movie, or awake. Glamour was not immediately tangible. The New York Film Festival normally holds its flagship events at Alice Tully Hall, a Pietro Belluschi-designed venue for 1,100 in Lincoln Center. which has played host to Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and other luminaries. The only lights here came from the planes landing at LaGuardia.
And, of course, there were the self-made distractions. Unrestrained by the prospect of bothering others, the temptation to check messages (Twitter) shot to irresistible levels. The only thing that separates modern man from a hopeless pool of digital junkiehood, it turns out, is the slight fear of being shushed by a stranger.
But it also soon became evident how needed drive-in entertainment is in the age of the coronavirus — not just as a replacement for the real thing but as an actual antidote to these times. There’s a private-public dichotomy to drive-ins that perfectly complements this Zoom-ified moment: Instead of feeling together on a computer screen while being separate, a drive-in offers the possibility of being together while feeling separate. “Communal” may be a strong word for what is basically a parking lot with cinema. But compared to the preferred viewing mode over the past seven months — hunching over a tablet while someone else does the same at the other end of the house — it feels like a Turkish bazaar.
Eugene Hernandez, who runs the New York Film Festival, expressed how effective he believes these events can be.
“The drive-ins not only saved NYFF in 2020,” Hernandez said in an email, “[they] took the New York Film Festival to brand new audiences.” (He and his staff hired the outdoor-entertainment firm Rooftop Films to help with the drive-in screenings, which were sometimes paired with virtual screenings.) “The devastating pandemic has forced so many arts organizations to rethink how we connect new movies with audiences, and drive-ins are a beautiful, communal opportunity to do just that,” he said.
He added, “I hope we’ve seen a glimpse of our future this year.”
As she tried to get the crowd excited that night in Queens, Blank acknowledged the strangeness confronting public entertainment.
“I want to thank you,” she said, “for braving the elements at this moment.” The audience honked, then settled in to watch the movie though their windshields.