Bluffers guide: Is the drive-in making a comeback?

They seem like such a fun way to watch movies. They always have been, though generally more fun in warmer months than mid-winter. The heyday in Sydney was the 1960s to the early ’80s – a time of post-war prosperity and big cars. There were Skyline drive-ins at Frenchs Forest, Dundas, Chullora, North Ryde, Liverpool, Warriewood, Caringbah, Fairfield, Matraville, Parklea, Bass Hill, Penrith and Blacktown. But gradually the lustre wore off as colour TV, videos and clubs showing movies became competition and the land became more valuable to developers. Blacktown is the last one standing.

There’s a lot of nostalgia around them. They are definitely icons of popular culture, famously featuring in such movies as Grease and Twister. In 1986, a Peter Carey short story was turned into the Australian film Dead-End Drive-In.

Were they as good as everyone remembers? They were great for young couples wanting to get close. Great for parents with kids who could wear their pyjamas and fall asleep before the movie finished. Great if you like to talk or smoke during a movie. Great if you like two movies for the price of one. Great for a different kind of movie experience. People really did try to sneak in so ticket-sellers would check the back seat and look for a low hanging boot and telltale fingermarks at the front gate. And when the movie finished, staff knew that someone was always bound to have fallen asleep, someone else would need a jump start and at least one couple would not have realised the movie had finished.

But … Back in the day, drive-ins were always stronger on atmospherics than sound and picture quality. The food was more bowling alley standard than fine dining: steak sandwiches, chicken burgers, Pluto pups and donuts. In winter, it always seemed like a long cold walk to buy a drink or use the rest rooms. When it was cold and misty, you had to turn on the engine to run the demister or get out to wipe the windscreen. There always seemed to be a crush to get out after the movie. And if you want to drink, you’ll need a designated driver.

Surely it would make sense to open some new drive-ins, maybe using other carparks, industrial sites, sports fields or even racecourses that don’t get used at night? You would think there would be a market for what the American industry calls “ozoners” – as opposed to “hardtops” – screening new releases, especially in summer. But maybe open-air cinemas will always win out for comfort, atmosphere and quality food.

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Will Skyline Blacktown get a boost now that it’s open again? Event’s director of entertainment Luke Mackey predicted “we’ll see a resurgence for sure” a week ago and that’s been borne out already. The first two nights sold out for restricted numbers for two movies that had their cinema runs interrupted by COVID-19: Sonic The Hedgehog and Bloodshot. Given the lack of other entertainment options away from the couch, it’s likely to be continue being popular even while it can only screen older movies.

Are there plans for any others? Mackay says Event is always looking for opportunities but there are no plans for any more drive-ins.

So the comeback is probably a novelty? If the country’s biggest chain isn’t backing a revival as the nation emerges from lockdown, sadly it looks like it.

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