REPORTS The Spud Drive-In, located in Driggs, Idaho, is one of 300 or so surviving drive-in theaters out
of approximately 4,000 that existed in the 1950s. Photo by Josh Myers, courtesy of TREC

Drive-in theaters are giving the live events industry a chance at redemption.

BY KATE HULL

Call it a comeback, a resurgence or a silver lining of the current times, but drive-in movie theaters are having a moment. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, the drive-in was a much-loved nod to history—a roadside throwback to simpler times cloaked in all the charm and nostalgia of mid-20th century America. Patrons would cruise up in their cars, order a heaping tub of popcorn and a milkshake or two, and tune their radio dial as the sun set and the big screen illuminated.

Now, drive-in theaters are giving an entire industry a chance at redemption. For the rest of us, they’re providing what we crave: an escape.

From throwback classics to live concerts, festivals and even church services and weddings, drive-in theaters have become not only the venue of choice for socially distanced events, but one of the only available options for entertainment.

In the mid-1950s, the height of the drive-in era, more than 4,000 theaters dotted the country. By the 1990s, this number had dropped significantly as indoor theaters took hold. Today, just over 300 theaters are still in operation, including The Spud Drive-In in Driggs, Idaho, and Bozeman’s Starlite Drive-In Theatre, which reopened last summer after a 31-year hiatus at its new location near Four Corners, Montana.

The live-events industry continues to be one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Employment reports from the industry nonprofit Live Events Coalition reveal that upwards of 85 percent of employees—ranging from DJs and musicians to sound engineers, light technicians and producers—have been furloughed since March. While the long-term economic loss is yet unknown, live-event trade publication and research firm Pollstar estimated ticket sale losses alone could reach $9 billion. The second coming of the drive-in has allowed for, at the very least, some forward momentum.

Since last May, drive-in events have popped up across the country, from small, local gatherings to big-name headliners. Country star Keith Urban held a live drive-in concert near Nashville. Events promoter Live Nation hosted a drive-in concert series, “Live From the Drive-In,” in Alpharetta, Georgia. The Arts Council of Big Sky hosted “Mountainfilm on Tour – Big Sky” by way of a pop-up drive-in to showcase the short docu-film series. And the model continued throughout the fall at drive-ins from Texas to Florida.

“These events have gone exceptionally well, with many screenings selling out,” said Crystal Merrill, tour director of Mountainfilm on Tour. “It’s a superb way for audiences to gather together and experience Mountainfilm under starry skies while still prioritizing safety.”

Instead of the usual packed-house festival in Jackson, Wyoming, Teton Gravity Research kicked off the fall tour and world premiere of Make Believe, its latest ski and snowboard film, at The Spud. Known for the vintage potato truck monument at its entrance off of Highway 33 in Driggs, The Spud has become a haven for the community since the pandemic began last March.

“Talking to family and friends, it became apparent that my experience with COVID-19 has been starkly different as a business,” said Katie Mumm, who serves as general manager of the drive-in alongside her husband, Jedd. Mumm says during COVID-related shutdowns The Spud experienced a silver lining.

“People who had become desperate for social interaction and a sense of community turned to The Spud as a place where they could social distance and feel safe, while still enjoying the smiles of comrades and sights and sounds that took them back to a feeling of normal again,” Mumm said.

Whether or not a concert from your car or wedding held drive-in style will stick around as the new norm remains to be seen. While the festivals and gatherings of our pre-pandemic past feel sometimes too far gone, the chance to reinvent the live events industry in the embrace of a vintage era is a welcomed second coming.

A Texan-turned-Idahoan, Kate Hull balances her role as the co-publisher and editor-in-chief of Teton Valley Magazine with time enjoying Teton Valley’s seemingly endless snow and gravel bike trails.