Drive-ins are thriving, but should we encourage exclusive events that champion car use?

Drive-ins are thriving, but should we encourage exclusive events that champion car use?

During the summer of 2020, event organisers have been forced to think of ways of staging events that don’t contravene measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19. One of the most obvious options is to stage drive-in events: by confining attendees to private vehicles, contact between them can be restricted. These events conjure up images of Twentieth Century Americana: after the first venue was opened in 1933, drive-in cinema became incredibly popular in the US, particularly in the 1950s and 60s. It has declined in popularity ever since, with commentators predicting drive-ins would struggle to survive the digital age. In 1950 there were 4,000 drive-in cinemas in the US, by 2017 the number had reduced to 350.

The revival of drive-ins during the summer of 2020 is not limited to cinema screenings. Enterprising event companies have staged drive-in rock concerts, drive-in comedy festivals, drive-in nightclubs and even drive-in arts festivals. Normal attendee behaviours have been substituted with bizarre new rituals: at a Mads Langer drive-in concert staged in Aarhus, Denmark, “instead of applauding, fans showed their appreciation by blowing their horns and using their windscreen wipers, while staff in Hazmat suits served up movie snacks and drinks” ( The artist connected to his audience using Zoom; thus blending a live event with an online one.

The UK has been a little slower to adopt the drive-in format than Denmark and Germany. However, since July multiple events have been staged, including the Henley Festival and Henley Royal Regatta which were replaced with three drive-in events, including a comedy festival. There have also been drive-in music concerts. However, plans for a drive-in music festival that would tour the UK had to be abandoned because of fears that it would be disrupted by local lockdowns. Despite some ingenious exceptions, the vast majority of drive-in events have been film screenings.

To try and understand the visitor experience during these events, my family and I attended one of the first drive-in cinema events staged in the UK after lockdown measures were eased. This was a particularly interesting event in the context of the Festspace project as it was held on one of London’s most prestigious open spaces – Blackheath. This large heathland site is adjacent to Greenwich Park in South London. Fenced off events staged here are often contentious because they involve the enclosure of metropolitan commons.

Setting up the fences that surrounded the event on Blackheath

The decision to allow a drive-in event on Blackheath was particularly controversial because it involved cars driving on to a prestigious green space. Even though circuses and funfairs are staged here, the principle of hosting an event that was restricted to car owners seemed difficult to justify, particularly in the context of the Coronavirus crisis when London’s citizens were being encouraged to walk and cycle more. The screenings were sponsored by Suzuki, reinforcing that these events championed cars and car use. This messaging seemed incongruous with the venue. Suzuki presents @thedrivein toured other cities after debuting in London; and in subsequent editions it occupied airport car parks. These were far more suitable locations for drive-in cinemas as redundant urban sites were repurposed, rather than events occupying much needed green space.

The London venue was assembled fairly quickly over one weekend, with daily screenings beginning on Monday 6th July and continuing until Sunday 12th July. Tickets were expensive (£38.50 per vehicle) and this, combined with the fact that you had to have a car to attend, meant that these were undeniably exclusive events. The event experience was also one that would be alien to most event attendees. For obvious reasons, there was no chance to mingle with or talk to people other than those in the same vehicle. Attendees were instructed to stay in their cars the whole time, with food and drink ordered via a phone app. This means the social dimension, which is core to the attraction of most events, was missing.

Attendees order drinks and snacks via their phones

Organisers tried to transform a perfunctory film screening into an ‘event’ by orchestrating a series of activities before the film started. Attendees were asked to play an excruciating game of ‘Suzuki Says’, a version of Simon Says with a compere asking drivers to activate hazard lights or windscreen wipers when instructed. This was followed by in car karaoke: attendees were invited to sing along to various Disney hits. There was a chance to win prizes if your number plate matched the numbers and letters in a prize draw, alongside a series of other activities you might expect to see at a Twenty 20 cricket match. Even though most of the attendees were families with young children, people seemed reluctant to participate.

Pre-film ‘entertainment’

The nuisance impacts of the event for nearby residents were restricted by asking attendees to use their own car radios to hear the film audio. This made sense, but caused various problems, as our car (not a Suzuki) has an eco-setting which means that the radio cuts off after 10 minutes when the engine is switched off. So every 10 minutes we had to restart the engine. Attendees were requested not to sound their horns at the end of the film, to respect the sanity of residents living nearby. Needless to say, this merely encouraged people to do exactly that.

Other than the bizarre novelty for people like us that had never been to a drive-in cinema, this was a rather dispiriting event. Given the absence of mingling, the high ticket prices, and the requirement for a car to attend, it is hard to imagine a less inclusive occasion. The fact it was staged on one of London’s most prestigious public spaces made it even harder to justify, and it is difficult to see why the local authority sanctioned the events. Presumably they were persuaded by the hire fee they earned for the site, which is perhaps understandable given the plight of many local authorities which have seen their commercial revenues decimated by lockdown measures.

The organisers certainly added value to their event by staging their drive-in on an attractive site, but although the venue was removed quickly – with minimal damage to the site – the event was incompatible with the notion of open space. It physically enclosed an important public space, and those without cars or who couldn’t afford a ticket were denied access to it. Thus, the contribution of the event to the venue was to make this space less public. As one commentator on Twitter, @outwither, put it: “My rule of thumb for open-air cinema: If you’ve got to put up hoardings to prevent non-ticket-holders from seeing the screen, it’s not enriching public life, but enclosing public space for profit. In other words, accumulation through dispossession”.

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