Are Drive-In Movies Really Here to Save Us?

Drive-ins are the name of the moviegoing game right now. But can anything replace the shoulder-to-shoulder experience of a sold out screening at the Hollywood?

By Conner Reed September 4, 2020

The Hollywood Theater presented Jordan Peele's Get Out at the Expo Center last weekend, as part of its PDX Drive-In Movie Spectacular.

Image: Conner Reed

“People are just excited for the opportunity to do something,” says Doug Whyte, executive director of the Hollywood Theatre, trying to pinpoint the vibe at the Expo Center’s PDX Drive-In Movie Spectacular. The event, which has appeared in various permutations with various partners for the last five summers, is being programmed and sponsored by the Hollywood this year. It kicked off on August 13 and wraps this weekend, with screenings of Death Becomes Her, The Lost Boys, and Mad Max: Fury Road

Like most people, I have not been to the movies in a while. The last time I was in a theater of my own accord was for February’s Queer Commons screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the Hollywood, and the last time I was in one period was to cover the opening night of the Portland International Film Festival from Cinema 21. As a frequent shotgun filmgoer—a “what’s playing on this side of town in the next hour, I need to feel something” kind of guy—this has been a loss. I would say “significant loss,” but I can read the news and understand perspective.

Back in April, I wrote about the way Oregon’s already-existing drive-ins were preparing to step up to the plate while traditional theaters shuttered in the wake of Governor Brown’s lockdown orders. Since then, several ad hoc drive-ins have popped up in Portland proper: there’s the Expo Center’s setup, the Northwest Film Center’s program at Zidell Yards on the South Waterfront, and a weekly engagement at Oaks Park, to name a few. As of last week, I hadn’t gone to any of them. Carlessness has been my rock-solid excuse, but there’s something a little deeper going on, too: I want the thing, not the facsimile of the thing, and I’m worried that approaching but not touching the thing might just painfully highlight its absence.

But last week, a friend with a car came to town, and I caught wind that the Hollywood had programmed a screening of Jordan Peele’s Get Out at the Expo Center with an opening performance from local music legends Ural Thomas and the Pain. I decided that if ever there would be the perfect moment to get my moviegoing feet wet again, this was it. 

(For those keeping score at home, theaters are classified as venues and still shuttered in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties, which remain in phase one of the governor’s reopening plan. Much of the rest of the state is in phase two, which means that they can show Tenet. Theaters in Portland cannot show Tenet, though a group of owners recently petitioned Governor Brown for the privilege.)

The setup at the Expo Center echoed the other setups I’d already reported on: concessions—Sizzle Pie, a bar, hot dogs, and ice cream—were contactless, with visitors encouraged to pre-order and cut down on line size. Total car capacity was slashed in half to roughly 110 vehicles, all arranged in a massive lot behind the Expo Center’s Building C with a parking space between each one. Diligent bathroom attendants cleaned the facilities every hour and ensured they were never overpopulated; the ticket booking system allowed organizers to conduct easy front-end contact tracing should it become necessary in the event of a COVID outbreak.

My friend and I rolled up in a Honda Fit after spending all day in the Columbia Gorge, missing much of the news and accidentally ending up in the Trump parade that spanned the Clackamas Town Center to Downtown Portland. Not an auspicious start. But it was a beautiful night, and as we were pulling up to the parking lot and “Redbone” by Childish Gambino was filtering into the car from the theater’s outdoor speakers, I thought about the fact that Oregon’s very first drive-in was just down the street, opened in 1946 and situated beside the recently closed Portland Meadows.

Ural Thomas and the Pain performed tracks like "Any Other Way" by Chuck Jackson and "(You) Got What I Need" by Freddie Scott as the sun set.

Image: Conner Reed

“Drive-ins, for us, are a way we can reconnect with everybody and get back in touch with our community,” says Matthew Rotchford, the Expo Center’s executive director. That was the timbre of Thomas’s performance, too. The 81 year-old vocalist, clad in jeans, Adidas, and a pale purple button up, sang standards like Chuck Jackson’s “Any Other Way” and Freddie Scott’s “(You) Got What I need” with his trademark vigor while the sun set. In between songs, he talked about how much he missed performing. “I don’t want to be away from everyone again,” he said, sweat pouring down his face, while we watched safely from our cars.

Parts of the night felt unequivocally good: seeing the Hollywood’s pre-roll ads was unspeakably comforting, even if they were projected on a 60 x 30 foot screen on the side of a building lined with clown face garbage cans. Other parts felt strange: Thomas and his band were a knockout, but there was something undeniably stilted about watching them so far away, with little audible applause.

When the film finally started (it was programmed as part of the Hollywood's Portland Black Film Festival, which officially runs in February every year), I settled in: I don't know if anyone's said this before, but Get Out is a really good movie. Once I got over the audio echo between the outdoor sound system and my in-car FM radio signal, I clicked back into its rhythms, and I relished Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams's performances, and I had a good time.

But a cloud hung over me. Part of it, for sure, was by design: films are meant to reflect our world back at us, and getting stopped in a Trump-loving traffic jam on the way to a horror film that skewers America’s anti-Blackness is enough to make anyone squirm in the exact way Peele would like you squirm. 

The rest of it, though, came from finally facing the havoc COVID has wrought on the arts, which I’ve dedicated my personal and professional lives to. I’m part of a bad movie club that meets on Zoom every Friday to suck down titles like Showgirls and New Year's Eve, and there's an intimacy there that’s weirdly missing even when you're assembled with a few hundred strangers whose eyes are trained on the same screen yours are. Video conferencing closes the gap in a way empty parking spaces just can't.

You have the chance to see a blond Kiefer Sutherland suck blood on a big screen this weekend, and you should go. It will be fun. When Get Out ended, everyone honked and cheered, and I smiled, and my friend and I agreed we were glad we came. But I might settle for a helping of Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed via Zoom, because I'm not sure I'm ready to face the music again.

Listen to Portland Monthly arts editor Conner Reed talks about how drive-in theaters have reemerged in the age of coronavirus in this episode of Footnotes.

Show Comments