Words by Rowena Marella-Daw
Ask anyone born in the 40s and 50s what going to the cinema was like in their day, and they’ll fondly recall a civilised theatrical experience that felt more of a special event than a trimmed-down version of what we have today.
A typical ‘night at the pictures’ might start with a documentary newsreel, maybe also a cartoon, trailers, then the second feature, followed by an intermission to grab your refreshments before the main movie – a full night’s entertainment without being rushed out for the next showing.
In fact, you could stay as long as you wanted and watch the whole programme again! Uniformed usherettes guided people to their seats, and during intermission an ‘ice-cream lady’ sold drinks, sweets and snacks from a tray.
Back then, film studios went the whole hog with their marketing campaigns. As a kid I remember gawking at a model of a giant gorilla towering on the lobby of an Odeon cinema as I waited with my parents for a King Kong film screening. Sadly, those days are long gone, along with Art Deco movie palaces, replaced by drab, clinical multiplexes that mushroomed in the 80s.
Another casualty of changing times are drive in theatres, which have been part of classic American culture since the 1930s. The first officially recognised drive in opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey on 6th June 1933, but it wasn’t until the 40s that they really took off as a popular pastime for families and dating couples.
This trend peaked in the late 50s, with over 4,000 drive-ins scattered across US suburban pockets. But with the advent of cable TV, VCRs video rentals and the ensuing oil crisis of the 70s, drive-in movies lost their appeal, contributing to their fast decline. Today there are just 325 still operating in the US.
Across the pond, open-air cinemas have become a popular British summer treat, thanks to George Wood, who in 2007 founded Luna Cinema to offer alfresco pop-up theatres across the UK. Twelve years on, and with Covid redefining our social landscape, the guys at Luna stepped up to the challenge and introduced The Luna Drive In Cinema for the first time this summer.
Drive in cinemas lend themselves naturally to social distancing, so it’s no surprise that several privately owned drive in theatres have sprung up here and there, setting up on farmland or empty lots. But what sets the Luna experience apart is down to several factors. Firstly, they are held in splendid historic settings and National Trust properties across the UK – Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Knebworth and Ascot Racecourse, just to name a few.
Transmitting sound through a car’s FM radio is so yesteryear – plus it drains the battery. Instead, Luna Cinema uses state-of-the-art projectors and sound systems that make all the difference in enhancing the audio-visual experience. Each vehicle is provided with a Bluetooth speaker that sits nicely on the dashboard and is designed with a simple knob to make volume control easy in the dark.
The sound quality is excellent, and the evening my husband and I watched A Star is Born, it felt as if we were listening live to Lady Gaga belting out La Vie En Rose and Shallow. The Bluetooth box is also a handy tool for ordering food and drinks, which a staff member delivers to your car using a motorised scooter.
Rain or shine
That evening I witnessed how years of experience managing open-air theatres helped the Luna crew ensure the smooth running of the drive in event from start to finish while at the same time adhering to distancing and safety protocols. A hands-free system enabled staff to scan plate numbers at the venue entrance. Overtaking and driving off before the movie has ended were not allowed. Each car was designated a space by stewards, so even the vehicles were safely distanced, and out of respect for other viewers, passengers were discouraged from leaving their vehicles unless they needed to use the toilet.
The unpredictable British weather is something we’ve learned to live with, and it hasn’t stopped us from doing what we love, including watching movies outdoors. Contrary to the forecast, it rained the evening we went to see A Star Is Born, and although it felt strange watching a film through a rain-speckled windscreen and occasional wiper sweeps, it didn’t spoil the fun. Actually, it would take a heavy downpour or gale force winds for a Luna Cinema screening to be cancelled.
The fact that extreme cold temperatures never stopped drive-ins from operating year-round in New Jersey and New York means there’s no reason why drive-ins shouldn’t flourish here, especially when our winters are getting milder.
Those who come to watch old favourites and classics they’ve seen countless times are there for the fun of it – the freedom to put your feet up on the dashboard, eat burgers without stinking out the cinema, laugh and chat without disturbing anyone. Best of all, the annoying socially challenged person next to you in the cinema who fiddles with their mobile instead of watching the screen doesn’t exist.
Will drive in movies become the new normal? The fact that Luna Cinema have Halloween already sorted is a good indication. From 8th October to 1st November, horror and thriller fans can look forward to ‘The Luna Drive in Cinema Presents Halloween at Thorpe Park’ experience.
The line-up includes spine-tingling flicks The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Shining and Shaun of the Dead, while Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees will also make an appearance on screen. Family-friendly favourites, such as Ghostbusters, Hocus Pocus and The Addams Family are also on the agenda. Viewers who come dressed in their favourite character could even win a prize.
Just like open-air cinemas have become a popular summer entertainment, hopefully drive in experiences such as those offered by Luna Cinema will thrive and become a year-round entertainment.
Images courtesy of The Luna Cinema