Drive-ins experience resurgence during COVID-19

Written By Tia Bailey

Camille Pelka has been going to the drive-in multiple times a summer for the past few years. She is a part of the group of loyal movie-goers who will pile into their cars and deck out their trunks with blankets, pillows and snacks and enjoy the outdoor double feature with their families and friends — and because of the coronavirus, more people have begun to join in. 

The 21 year old is a student at Geneva College in Beaver County, and her local drive-in is a permanent fixture — Dependable Drive-In in Moon, PA. 

“I usually go two or three times a summer,” Pelka said.  

Although she didn’t go more than usual during the pandemic, she still had planned on going more and plans on continuing to go to her local one because she enjoys the experience. 

“I like that you are more just with your own group of people. You can talk and take pictures as much as you want because you aren’t sitting close to other people who will get bothered,” Pelka said. “It is also nice to spend a night outside, and watch two movies for the same price one movie would be at a normal movie theater.”

Although Dependable is the only local permanent drive-in, pop-up drive-ins have been showing up around the area frequently due to COVID-19. Places that do not have permanent drive-in screens, such as Walmarts and other grocery stores, have been displaying movies on the sides of their buildings to entertain the public in these trying times. 

The Rivers of Steel: Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark started showing movies at the former industrial site this summer. Their website lists a different theme every few weeks, such as “Pittsburgh Classics,” “80s Family Weekend” and more. 

Chris McGinnis, the arts director for Rivers of Steel, led the drive-in project. The event, officially called “Carrie Carpool Cinema,” was an idea that the staff at Rivers of Steel had been wanting to do for a while, but never had the time for. 

“We are very busy with the arts in the summer,” McGinnis said. “But we had to cancel so many things this year that it freed up time for us to sit down and focus on it.” 

While there are still some permanent drive-ins still in business, many areas had to rely on pop-ups like Carrie Carpool to get the experience. Part of the appeal of attending drive-ins over traditional movie theaters is to watch older classics. 

Frederick Johnson, a cinema professor at Point Park University, gave some insight on why these classic movies are still popular today. 

“The films shown in drive-ins are films that even in their day were popular,” Johnson said. “They have universal themes that resonate with audiences today.” 

Johnson noted that people also return to these movies for a sense of nostalgia. 

These are movies that parents are showing to their children and even grandparents are showing their grandchildren,” he said. “Sometimes you want to relive something that was important to you in the past.”

Carrie Carpool is showing primarily “classic” movies, but mostly to not compete with permanent drive-ins and other theaters in the area. 

“We don’t see ourselves as wanting to compete with big box theaters that are showing new releases, or other drive-ins,” McGinnis said. 

Another reason they are showing these classics is to connect the space with the films they are showing. 

“The space has a strong air of history that connects to it,” McGinnis said. “We want to try to show films from the same era, and films that have direct connections with the region.”

While McGinnis and the staff at Rivers of Steel enjoy doing the Carpool Cinema, they have no way of knowing if it will continue after the pandemic is over, whenever that may be. 

“It’s never gonna be a permanent fixture on site, but we could certainly develop a system where we could run this every once in a while,” he said. 

With the increase in audiences due to the virus and loyal drive-in goers like Pelka, it is possible that drive-ins can be making a comeback even after corona. 

“We were surprised we sold out,” McGinnis said. “We got a great response from our community.” 

McGinnis himself hopes that drive-ins will remain popular after the pandemic. 

“If it does happen, I think that would be a really welcome relief to all of us,” he said.