I Went to a Drive-In Theater to Feel Normal. The Opposite Happened.

If catching a movie at these establishments once offered a sojourn into the past, going to one amid the pandemic provides a glimpse of the future.

People arrive for a movie at the Warwick Drive-In on the first evening that the theater was allowed to reopen, May 15, 2020 in Warwick, New York.
Though I knew I was safe inside my car, I felt exposed. (Spencer Platt / Getty)

I arrive at the Paramount Drive-In Theater two and a half hours before its first screening, but it appears I’m already late: Ahead of me, a line of cars has formed, ranging from sedans like mine to pickup trucks loaded with blankets and pillows in the back, all inching toward the entrance. A masked employee walks toward me, stands a few feet away from my window, and informs me that my ticket will be placed on my windshield to minimize contact, and that I should review the new social-distancing guidelines posted by the box office, which she and her fellow attendants will be enforcing.

It’s the last Friday in May when I attend the grand reopening of the drive-in after the pandemic forced its closure in March. But it feels like I’m about to take a standardized test, not catch a movie with an audience for the first time in three months. No banners are commemorating the event, no fanfare is celebrating the business’s return; instead, signs have been posted by the box-office booths warning guests to park nine feet apart, walk six feet apart, and stay inside their vehicles during the screening. These instructions have also been printed on flyers; an attendant hands me one to keep in my car as a reminder.

By the time I purchase my ticket, I’m on high alert. I hesitate when an employee offers me a pen to sign the receipt. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I sanitized it.” Then she smiles—or, rather, her eyes crinkle above her mask. I crinkle back.

Moviegoers wear masks while watching a movie from a truck bed at Mission Tiki drive-in theater in Montclair, Calif., Thursday, May 28, 2020. California moved to further relax its coronavirus restrictions and help the battered economy. Flea markets, swap meets and drive-in movie theaters can resume operations.
Patrons at Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre in Montclair, California (Jae C. Hong / AP)

Drive-in theaters, emblems of a bygone era of Americana, have enjoyed a renaissance amid the shutdowns. Compared with other recreational facilities that are reopening across the country, they’re low-risk in terms of social distancing: The guests stay outdoors, near or inside their cars. Members of different households have little to no chance of coming into contact—no one is clambering over other viewers’ legs to reach seats, or rubbing elbows with strangers for hours in an enclosed space. I expected to find a haven, a sanctuary of old-fashioned normalcy; instead, my getaway only exacerbated my modern anxieties.

When Los Angeles County finally allowed its drive-in theaters to reopen—weeks after neighboring counties and other states did—the Paramount sprung into action. Darren Kurkowski, the vice president of operations at Bianchi Theatres, which owns the drive-in, told me it had been “incredibly tough” to watch competitors reap the rewards of pandemic-induced patronage while the Paramount sat idly. So when the green light finally arrived, the theater mobilized its staff, reopening its two screens just three days after the order’s announcement. “We prepared for the worst,” Kurkowski said, “and hoped for the best.”

So did I. Early last week, California saw its largest spike in coronavirus cases since the outbreak began, so I overprepare to go to the theater, bringing with me gloves, hand sanitizer, and snacks. But as much I try to relax, alarm bells erupt in my head during every possible interaction. I consider grabbing popcorn, but when I see that the line has stretched into the lot for the adjacent screen, I scurry back to my car—it feels like too many people, even if everyone’s socially distanced. Before heading to the restroom, I wait for the man standing by the car next to mine to finish tugging a mask over his son’s face. We’re far enough apart, but I don’t want to make a mistake. I’m not the only one acting oddly: In the restroom, where employees had used caution tape to mark off every other stall, a woman ducks inside hers when she spots me exiting mine at the same time, and heads for the row of sinks only after I walk past. A whiff of surreality even permeates the previews: Every trailer that plays still touts the film’s original release date. Black Widow, out in theaters May 2020!

Moviegoers sit at their vehicles at the Badin Road Drive-In Theater, in Badin, North Carolina, on Sunday, May 24, 2020. On Saturday, new North Carolina coronavirus cases spiked to 1,070, a single-day record, as the state moves into phase 2 of reopening over the Memorial Day weekend.
Moviegoers at Badin Road Drive-In Theater, in Badin, North Carolina, over Memorial Day weekend (Al Drago / Bloomberg / Getty)

The film itself alleviates some of this anxiety. Of the four films offered, I chose Trolls World Tour, the family-friendly, already released jukebox musical about tribes of the titular hairy dolls fighting to save music. Its eager sincerity, buoyant tone, and entertaining escapism wind up being an excellent distraction. The children in the audience certainly have no trouble enjoying the show: As the sky dims, fireworks—a staple of Los Angeles in the weeks leading up to July 4—explode in the distance, and the kids cheer them on. A group of masked boys on scooters and bikes ride around the lot, before an employee urges their adult chaperone to take them back to their car. Throughout the night, I hear giggling—and at one point, I catch myself laughing along as well, to an inexplicably deep-voiced baby troll played by Kenan Thompson. As it turns out, the Paramount sold out both screens that first night. “[People] didn’t care what we were showing,” Kurkowski said. “They were just so excited to be out.”

I was too, but all night my mind would get in my way. This had been the farthest I’d driven since quarantining (40 minutes), and the longest I’d spent doing a non-essential activity outside of my home. And though I knew I was safe inside my car, I felt exposed; weeks of staying indoors and venturing out only for supplies and exercise had conditioned me to distrust previously normal interactions. Every choice felt dire despite—and maybe because of—all the news I’d consumed about the dos and don’ts of living amid the pandemic. Should I risk another trip to the restroom? Is it safe if I roll my windows completely down? It’s like a dull ache, a low-grade hum of uncertainty around the unknown. On screen, Anna Kendrick’s pink-haired Queen Poppy sings about how trolls just want to have fun. Have fun, I tell myself. You forgot to bring wipes, and also there’s no vaccine, my thoughts respond.

Maybe I’m in the minority; maybe my nerves are extra frayed, and I’m more afraid than I need to be. But if catching a movie at a drive-in once offered a sojourn into the past, going to one now provides a glimpse of the foreseeable future, where masks on people’s faces serve as a constant visual reminder of the dangers of being out and about, and where the tango of dodging others and maintaining social distance interrupts every step.

Two nights after the Paramount’s clinical reopening, it again closed indefinitely. The protests against systemic racism and the police killings of black people prompted Los Angeles County to impose curfews, making it impossible for the theater to function. For Kurkowski, the loss of business so soon after reassembling his staff has been frustrating. “When is the 8.0 earthquake going to happen to make it a perfect trifecta?” he joked with a strained laugh over the phone. Indeed, with the pandemic deepening the wounds of inequality and serving now as a painful backdrop to civil unrest, the country seems on the brink of another catastrophe it’s destined to handle poorly. The various disasters of 2020 have already led to an overwhelming sense of unease. What could possibly be next?

On the way home from the Paramount, a long stream of police cars speed past me on the 101, heading downtown toward the protests, their sirens blending into a constellation of red and blue flecks along the freeway. In bed, I scroll through Twitter and read about the demonstrations. I watch videos of protesters igniting fireworks. I wonder if they were the ones I saw, that the kids cheered on.