There are a few theories as to why drive-in cinema has never taken off in the UK – at least, before this endless summer of Covid: it’s too rainy; we have plenty of actual cinemas; it’s too rainy. Personally, I think it’s that while we love movies, we – most of us, at least – don’t love our cars. Not with the kind of undying devotion that makes us want to just, well, sit in them. Arguably, this is even more true of Londoners. If you live in the capital, you either don’t have a car or it serves one of a few basic purposes: doing the weekly shop; blocking the space out front in case you ever need to move home; and for handy extra storage space.
So, sitting in my car with a three-year-old, waiting to file in to Allianz Park in Hendon for The Luna Drive In Cinema’s screening of ‘Happy Feet’ (£31 per vehicle) feels a little counter-intuitive: we’re going somewhere and we’re not going to get out when we get there. And then we’re going to drive home. This is Luna’s curtain raiser and glitches can probably be put down to teething troubles, but half an hour stuck in traffic pre-screening isn’t an ideal start (the movie runs later, too, and there are cars already queuing for the next movie as we exit). When I’d mentioned to my mum, who is American, what we had planned for this afternoon she’d waxed nostalgically about drive-in experiences from her teenage years. Crucially, none of them had involved logjam a few hundred yards from the North Circular.
But beneath this sense of geographic dissonance, I’m pretty excited for the experience. Drive-in cinema is an iconic slice of Americana – the kind of place The Fonz or Marty McFly spend their Friday nights. For this summer of you-know-what, Luna Cinema has channelled its prowess in hosting outdoor cinema at posh venues into a run of nationwide drive-ins. In London, it has Allianz Park and Printworks. Okay, this north London outdoor events space isn’t Blenheim Palace, but it does offer all the same creature comforts, retooled for the social-distancing era. So you can order crêpes, pizza, Cornish cider etc from your phone or via the chunky speaker you’re provided with, and, hey presto, they’re delivered to your car 20 minutes later. My daughter and I scarf a bag of popcorn, but the website goes down before we can continue our junk-food flight.
The main issue, aside from the odd tech and traffic grumble, is the screen size. If you haven’t coughed up an additional tenner for a spot in the ‘Gold Circle’, the viewing experience is fairly modest. At the back, it’d be like watching a film on an iPhone. We’re somewhere in the middle and the Volvo 4x4 parked in front means half the screen is obscured from the passenger seat. It’s tall-bloke-at-the-gig syndrome on wheels. The daylight glare doesn’t help, either; this is definitely an experience best suited to the dark. Inevitably, it’s less immersive than being at the cinema, yet after so long in lockdown that familiar sense of sharing a viewing experience with strangers kicks in and leaves a warm, fuzzy feeling. Are those strangers also trying to stop an errant toddler ripping the indicator clean off or are they, like the people in the neighbouring Seat, raptly enjoying George Miller’s poppy penguin spectacular? Hard to tell. But we’re all here together, in Hendon, and that’s what matters right now.
A few days later, I’m back for more. This time I’m travelling solo to Drive in Film Club at Alexandra Palace (£30.25 per vehicle for afternoon screenings and £32.45 in the evening). It’s organised by the people behind Rooftop Film Club, an outdoor-cinema organiser that usually runs skyline screenings in Peckham, Stratford and Shoreditch. On tonight’s bill is a personal favourite, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. This one is a (mainly) nocturnal screening and it’s (almost entirely) rainy. It’s not as busy as The Luna Drive-In Cinema and it’s easier to get in and get a good view of the screen.
Like Luna, Drive in Film Club’s staff are well drilled – smilingly roller-skating around in the rain and appearing at your car window like bedraggled otters. The snacks are worth the outlay (I opt for Popdogs’ MAGA-mocking ‘70 Year-Old Toddler’ hot dog), while the Portaloos bring back memories of bygone summer festivals. The major difference here is the sound, which comes via your FM radio – although speakers are provided if you’re fully DAB or driving a 1920s jalopy. Unlike Luna, there’s no VIP or gold-class section, so it’s first come, first served on the spaces, which feels more democratic. (For the money-is-no-object crowd Luna also offers an £80 VIP boudoir in the back of a pick-up truck parked up front, with a gourmet snack hamper and a tonne of soft furnishings thrown in. It’s very ‘Footloose’ meets DFS.)
Does having the windscreen wipers on and the de-mister chugging away distract from the misadventures of Monsieur Gustave H and Zero Moustafa in Wes Anderson’s comic gem? Sure, a little, but this movie is almost distraction-proof and sitting in a car filled with Alexandre Desplat’s score, munching on an overloaded hot dog feels decadent for a Wednesday night.
Of the two experiences, Drive in Film Club definitely edges it for me. This isn’t its organisers’ first rodeo – they ran a drive-in at Brent Cross Shopping Centre as far back as 2014, which definitely gives it solid ‘na-na-nana-na!’ rights over its rivals – and it translates into a slicker experience. But the appeal of both is broadly the same: here’s a long-awaited chance to get back in front of a big screen. Not IMAX-big, sure, but if you’re in the right spot, definitely not telly-small either. For anyone uncomfortable with the idea of sitting in a cinema at the moment, it’s a handy summer substitute: a communal movie-watching experience where the main health risk comes with overdosing on popcorn. To misquote Zero Moustafa: it’s an institution, drive-in cinema. Give it a spin.
The Luna Drive In Cinema runs at Allianz Park, Printworks London and other UK-wide venues throughout the summer. Book tickets here. Drive in Film Club runs at Alexandra Palace until the autumn and tickets are available via the official site.
Drive-in cinemas in London: where else to join the socially distanced cinema trend.