In Pictures: Drive-ins, dusk, and dashboards in California

Los Angeles

The Glendale parking lot is filling up quickly as Xavier Sanchez carefully directs another car into just the right spot.

It’s not the weekend, or even a new blockbuster release, but the cars keep lining up to see the pop-up double feature at the Electric Dusk Drive-In. Even as indoor theaters slowly begin to reopen, Los Angeles moviegoers still seem to be flocking to the reemerging drive-in movie scene. Is it just nostalgia or a trend that’s here to stay? 

With its year-round temperate weather and deeply embedded car culture, a city like Los Angeles seems to be the perfect place for drive-in theaters. Before the pandemic, a slow and steady decline had settled in, leaving only a handful of viable theaters scattered around the area. Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre in Montclair, which opened in 1956, had seen a decline in ticket sales and the site was sold.

Why We Wrote This

As moviegoers flocked to drive-in theaters in search of a pandemic distraction, they found something more – nostalgia and a reminder of just how good it feels to do something together, even when you’re in separate cars.

The pandemic ended up being a bittersweet reprieve for Mission Tiki. As the developer delayed breaking ground, the drive-in saw an increase in ticket sales as moviegoers rediscovered the retro entertainment. The temporary reopening also gave local fans more time to say goodbye.

With so few established drive-in theaters left, pop-ups have swept in. Using inflatable screens and rented parking lots, new companies are offering blockbuster releases and old films to audiences.

“We were locked in quarantine in 2020. I sat there and scratched my head. It’s like, what a great opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons,” says P. Ben Chou, founder of WE Drive-Ins, who used his new company to address the need for pandemic-safe entertainment in his community.

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Mr. Chou decided that he could help not only cooped-up movie fans (by “restoring the hearts”) but also workers hit hardest by the pandemic (in the restaurant and theater sectors). Before going on hiatus recently, his pop-ups included food and films, so that he was “putting both sectors, to a small degree, back to work,” Mr. Chou says.  

Despite the struggles of the older, established drive-ins, pop-up models that repurpose underused spaces seem to be thriving for now, even as indoor entertainment becomes more widely available. 

Moviegoers watch previews at Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre on May 6, 2021, in Montclair, California. The facility, which was sold to a developer, will cease operations soon.

Xavier Sanchez directs parking at Electric Dusk Drive-In.

UCLA students, from left to right, Rebecca Chelsi, Erin Hall, Vivian To, and Conor McCaulley wait for a showing of “Rushmore” at Electric Dusk Drive-In on April 1 in Glendale, California.

An old refreshments sign hangs on the snack bar building at Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre. The drive-in, which opened in 1956, was sold to a developer. It gained a temporary reprieve to show movies during the pandemic.

Chelsea Cabriole prepares popcorn for moviegoers before a showing of “Godzilla vs. Kong” at a pop-up theater run by WE Drive-Ins on April 2 in Santa Monica, California.

Moviegoers watch a film from their cars.

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