As we tentatively emerge from lockdown, drive-in cinemas look set to be the summer’s hottest trend. But does the experience live up to the hype? I share my first taste of open-air movie watching. By Sarah Bradbury.

The joy of cinema-going

As a freelance culture journalist, going to the cinema was a key part of my weekly routine. Whether attending a celeb-laden blockbuster premiere in London’s Leicester Square, a daytime preview of an arthouse film with a handful of fellow critics, or a date-night visit with my other half, it was always something I took delight in. It wasn’t just about the film or how good it was but the whole ritual of going to watch it.

Lockdown quickly put that right out the window. Of course, we can’t complain too much, with endless film and TV streaming options at our fingertips. While the big screen was out of bounds, we could still get our entertainment fix from the comfort of our COVID-safe sofas.

But I would argue it’s really no replacement for the real deal – the joy of the shared experience of watching a film with others is a unique one, as is going with intention to a dedicated space to see your movie of choice with the lights down and the sound loud. It’s always far more absorbing than flicking through Netflix to stick something random on your TV or laptop, while you or the person you’re watching with can’t help but scroll thoughtlessly through their phone simultaneously…

Thankfully, after what’s seemed like an interminable four months, cinemas can finally reopen their doors. But their return has been more muted than might be expected. Only a few of the bigger chains have taken the leap, with COVID-safe measures in place, with the independents in particular holding back. Whatever precautions taken, it’s hard to argue that sitting in an enclosed space with strangers, unlikely to be wearing masks, will not still pose a risk…

Cue cinema drive-ins, set to be the big trend of the summer, with options popping up all over the country, screening a bit of everything from new releases to 80s classics. While a staple in the US, the concept is pretty new to us Brits. But it seems the perfect time to import the idea, offering that halfway house that gives a taste of the cinema experience without any of the risk.

Secret Cinema’s The Drive-In

I had my first go over the weekend when I was invited to the opening premiere of Secret Cinema’s Secret Drive-In. It was a bit of a slog from London but worth the drive to watch Rush at the incredibly apt location of Goodwood Motor Circuit – the 2013 film centred on the rivalry between two Formula One drivers, during the 1976 motor-racing season, starring oh-so-watchable Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Nicki Lauda. We even could have a crack at a lap around the course – pretty hilarious in my 17-year-old Renault Clio. 

Even more hilarious was watching all the other guests arrive – friends of Goodwood for the premiere – which essentially saw an endless line of classic and supercars arrive from Bentley’s to Aston Martins. Blend in we did not.

Although of course different to the immersive Secret Cinema experiences (of which I’ve had my fair few), Secret Drive-in had channeled some of that same magic, with brilliantly friendly in-character staff and high energy hosts, getting us involved in some jokes car twister via an en-masse Zoom call from inside our cars and a Titanic sing-along pre-film. Fancy dress was encouraged, as was decorating your car to get into the 70s theme. There was an amazing party-like atmosphere. That romantic notion I had of a drive-in, perpetuated by Hollywood movies like Grease, actually did materialise.

After being showered with snacks, bubbly and Haagen-Dazs, we could settle down in our cosy car seats to watch the movie – from the front row no less – with the help of a portable JBL speaker which, I’m not exaggerating, almost gave better sound than you would have in a proper cinema. Plus there was the bonus we could chat and munch our popcorn at will, without being shot evils by our fellow movie watchers.

As the head of Secret Cinema put it at the opening, there is something special about the “congressional appreciation of cinema” and through their drive-in they were able to recreate that “collective enjoyment of stories, even with layers of steel” between us and our neighbours.

Overall, it was not only a unique way to watch a film but also a great option to have the joy of a shared cinema experience without risking anyone’s health. After four months spent inside, it was a genuinely thrilling day out. 

You can find more dates for Secret Cinema’s The Drive-In at Goodwood Motor Circuit here.

Where else can you go to a Drive-In Cinema?

Find our recommendations below and in our Summer Staycation guide:

1. Sunset Cinema, Twyford Avenue Sports Ground, Acton

Sunset Cinema have dubbed themselves “an all American inspired vintage Drive-In movie experience.” The West London location will show its first screening on 5th July, with a great line-up of classic and cult films from Dirty Dancing to Pulp Fictions. And there are cocktails. Just make sure you have a designated driver.

Further deets here.

2. The Luna Cinema, Multiple locations: Midlands, London, Oxford, Hertfordshire

You may have been to one of Luna Cinema’s popular outdoor summer screening sessions. Now you can swap your picnic blanket for your car as they pivot to pop-up drive-in cinemas for the first time. There’s some great spots to choose from including Warwick Castle, Allianz Park, Blenheim Palace, Knebworth House with more to follow. You can order food and drink which will be delivered directly to your car by their team on roller-skates and scooters. Some dates are already selling out so move fast! Check out the listings here.

3. @TheDriveIn, Multiple locations: Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Southampton, Cardiff, Glasgow

@TheDriveIn is hosting six shows in each major city, with some great family friendly options like The Lion King and Toy Story as well as your movie classics. There’s even a Grease Sing-along… Sign us up! Head here.

4. Drive & Dine

Those behind Pub in the Park are launching a Drive & Dine Theatre at both Syon Park and Selhurst Park Stadium in London with movies, comedy and food by Tom Kerridge. Listings include family favs and 80s flicks as well as contemporary films: 1917, Aladdin, Jaws, Knives Out and Back to the Future.

See what takes your fancy here.

5. The Star and Mouse Drive-in, Suffolk Helmingham Hall, near Stowmarket

This mobile cinema is normally tucked away in Cambridgeshire but will now be hitting beauty spots around the UK. They’ll be showings on a 52ft screen in July at Helmingham Hall with classic 80s movies and live entertainment.

Find more details here.

First published on #ThisMuchIKnow on 8th July 2020.