Are drive-in cinemas the future of entertainment?
In pre-Covid time, watching movies at a theatre may have been one's favourite weekend pastime. Today, the need for social distancing has changed the rules of the game. While cinemas across Dubai may have reopened at limited capacity, most leading players in the region have launched drive-in cinemas for those wary of going indoors.
The phenomenon is not limited to the UAE. The UK, too, has witnessed a rise in drive-in theatre option. A drive-in theatre typically involves large outdoor screen with projection booth, concession stand and parking area for vehicles, as audiences watch movies within the confines of their car. While they offer a socially distant substitute to regular theatre, they are not a new phenomenon. Rather, it's a phenomenon that has re-entered popular culture owing to Covid-19.
One of the first drive-in theatres was built as early as 1915 in New Mexico. Their popularity, however, would only soar in 1950s and 60s, as the automobile industry expanded and more people began to buy cars. It is believed that in the US alone, close to 4,000 drive-in theatres were introduced during this time. In the 1980s, the UAE had its own drive-in theatre in the form of Rex Cinema on Al Khawaneej Road, which had been hugely popular among the local community then.
Our entertainment options have evolved immensely since, graduating to 3D, 4DX and many more. Can an audience that has had these high-tech experiences also embrace good, old drive-in cinema?
Indoor versus outdoor
As we reached out to Reel Cinemas that has recently opened a drive-in option at The Dubai Mall, we were told that it seems to be drawing younger audiences and couples (aged between 22 and 40). While the indoor theatre may have reopened, the drive-in theatre is being pitched as a 'lifestyle experience'.
"The drive-in cinema concept, though it goes well with the social distancing aspect by default, is very appealing to many people. It's a lifestyle experience similar to when you take your car and enjoy cruising in the city. And with Burj Khalifa in the backdrop under the stars, it is an experience not to be missed," Reel Cinemas responded to a query by WKND.
Lifestyle experience is a wise pitch in a city that thrives on novel experiences. Add to it, drive-in theatres also bring in a sense of adventure to the movie-watching experience. UAE-based film blogger Razan Takash (of Razz Reviews) recalls her recent experience at a drive-in theatre as being "a lot of fun". If she had concerns about clarity of view on screen and sound, those were thwarted; the screen was visible and the sound broadcasted on the car radio. She is also quick to add that it was nothing like a regular movie-watching experience and was "more like an event, like going to a play".
The tickets, priced at Dh170 per car (with two people in each car), include a food and beverage combination, which further makes it a fun, communal hangout especially in these times. While many other cinemas across the region are yet to start drive-ins, Debbie Kristiansen, CEO of Novo Cinemas says, "With the dynamic industry that we belong to and the government protocol to adhere to, we are studying our options, which also includes drive-in market with a number of our landlords and partners. Ultimately, we want to ensure what's best for our customers with the best viewing experience."
The environment aspect
Drive-in theatre demands that your car engine remains turned on throughout the running time of the film. In the UAE, where it's considerably hot for the better part of the year, such options also raise questions on environment-friendliness.
When we posed the question to Reel Cinemas, we were told due precautions have been taken. For instance, right before Reel Cinemas launched its drive-in option, tests were duly conducted with safety and environment experts to measure carbon emissions and other details. These are factors that cinemas will have to keep in mind, and possibly work to introduce some of their own measures to contain carbon footprint.
For a generation that has not been privy to the drive-in experience of yesteryears, this surely holds novelty, but also at a time, when 4DX, 3D and IMAX have advanced the movie-watching experience, a drive-in option may just feel inadequate. But then it is useful to remember that a drive-in theatre is more of a communal project, rather than a personalised experience.
Independent film critic Ankit Ojha says, "Should there be a sense of normalcy in the near future, you would definitely see more people preferring the big-screen experience. IMAX, 4DX and 3D films are difficult to replicate in a drive-in, mostly because these concepts depend on making an experience more immersive," he says. Razan nearly echoes these thoughts when she says it's little more distracting than regular cinema, but this depends on the film. "It's not really a place to watch a heavy film that requires concentration. It's more for action, comedy, romance and blockbusters."
Traditionally, drive-in cinemas play classics or films that have already had a first run. Today, as many films are poised to release directly on streaming platforms or have postponed release, drive-in theatre is also a nostalgic ode to a simpler time.