Entertainment & Content

Tech and the Revival of Drive-Ins

Overview The coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures have revitalized drive-in movie theaters. Technology innovations throughout the decades have improved the drive-in experience.

As movie theaters remain shuttered or restricted with strict social distancing measures due to the coronavirus pandemic, consumers have turned to drive-in movie theaters, generating an unexpected surge of attendance at the nostalgic entertainment option.

Drive-ins have allowed movie theaters to maintain business operations and given other businesses a new way to connect with their customers. Retail giant and Consumer Technology Association (CTA)® member Walmart transformed 160 of its U.S. store parking lots into drive-in movie theater amid new safety guidelines.

Technology advancements have vastly improved the drive-in experience since the first patented drive-in with a screen nailed to trees and radio speakers behind the screen.


Going Digital

Traditional drive-ins relied on 35mm films. In fact, the conversion to digital projection contributed to the decline of drive-ins around 2010. As film was rapidly phased out of movie theaters, the options for drive-ins dwindled. In 2013, trying to help drive-ins remain relevant during the transition, CES exhibitor Honda launched a campaign to donate digital projectors to drive-ins.

In drive-ins today, digital projectors help create a bigger, brighter picture and is more equipped to handle ambient light.


Personalized Surround Sound

Localized FM radio broadcasts accessible in every car have replaced the pole-mounted speakers shown in the movie Grease or the large speakers at the front of earlier drive-ins that caused sound delays for moviegoers in the back of the field. Though not a novel technology by today’s standards, FM radio only became more widely installed in cars in the 1960s.
The newer setup not only means fewer items to keep sanitized and appropriately distanced during the pandemic, but it also means better sound quality for each moviegoer and less disturbance for nearby neighborhoods.


Fit for a Silent Disco

Movies are not the only entertainment that fit the drive-in experience. The Beanstalk Music Festival kept fans safe this year during the coronavirus by making its annual festival a drive-in experience.

Audio was broadcast to FM radios and through smartphone apps, keeping noise disturbance low. Musicians had in-ear monitors to hear their own sound, with percussionists playing sets with nylon pads that electronically recreated their sound.

With consumer spending on streaming services on the rise — made more prominent by stay-at-home trends — it remains to be seen if drive-ins will continue to be popular post-contagion. But for moviegoers missing the cinema experience, drive-ins are a safe — and nostalgic — option.

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