Drive-ins: Ag pleez deddy . . .
Today’s drive-in is a smart, slick, portable pop-up one, to be enjoyed anywhere
In 2012, when Randburg’s Velskoen Drive-In was bulldozed to make way for a shiny new townhouse development, Johannesburg bade a misty-eyed farewell to its last outdoor movie theatre. Two years later, the final nail was hammered into the coffin in Pretoria, where the Menlyn Park rooftop drive-in threw the dust jacket over its trusty 35mm projector.
The advent of digital projection had rendered movie reel technology obsolete, and modern audiences were cocooning and investing in lavish home entertainment systems. Who needed a giant outdoor screen when you could have your own giant indoor screen?
But for many, the death of the SA drive-in cinema marked the end of an era when working-class families could enjoy affordable entertainment under a starry sky complete with all the cultural trappings of rock ’n roll Americana.
Conveniently sidestepping the fact that drive-ins were not accessible to all races during apartheid, many have been trotting out sepia-tinged, romanticised eulogies. Sentimentalists have evoked the ghosts of fresh popcorn, slush puppies, Dagwoods, "slap" chips and hot dogs bought from the cafeteria during interval, as songs by pop group Abba blared from speakers mounted on car windows.
People lamented that future generations of pyjama-clad children would not be able to frolic on jungle gyms under the glare of floodlights. Teenagers would be denied the chance to snog, grope, smoke and sneak an illicit dop while huddled outside the projector room. And drive-in babies would become a thing of the past.
Oh yes, and then there were the movies. But the drive-in experience was never really about the double feature. Unless, like some of us, your nightmares are still populated by images of the vampiric piranhas, grinning jack o’lanterns and giant killer ants of the 1970s B-grade horrors glimpsed from under the blankets.
Clearly, yet another slice of popular culture was going the way of vinyl records, Polaroid cameras, Marvel comics, My Little Pony toys and the Nokia 3310, and would be consigned to the dustbin of ... oh, wait a minute.
Just as other retro toys, gadgets and pastimes have made a comeback, the drive-in theatre is also enjoying a revival.
Vintage is cool, and many Generation X fads and fashions are being dusted off and reinvented to appeal to nostalgia junkies, as well as to millennials and hipsters yearning for novel experiences to share with friends and family. Ladies and gentlemen, tune in for the era of the pop-up drive-in.
Whether it’s conjuring the authentic drive-in experience in cars, creating outdoor picnic-style pop-up cinemas or borrowing the essence of the drive-in for indoor movie screenings, savvy entrepreneurs are ensuring that the concept of a nontraditional cinema space is back with a bang.
No longer a fixed entity that risks haemorrhaging money and becoming a white elephant, today’s modern drive-in is a smart, slick, portable pop-up one — capable of being erected and enjoyed just about anywhere, from a park or a sports field to a residential garden. Some even offer inflatable screens.
Of course, there are some glaring differences. Because of licensing and copyright issues, many drive-ins can’t screen the latest releases. This means that classic crowd-pullers (some would say chestnuts) like Dirty Dancing, Grease, The Lion King, Frozen, Love Actually and Top Gun get trotted out with monotonous regularity — but then again, it isn’t really about the movie, is it?
Savvy entrepreneurs are ensuring that the concept of a nontraditional cinema space is back with a bang
Tapping into this with the tagline "It’s not about the film, but the experience", Drive.in.co brings a pop-up drive-in to various sites throughout Gauteng every month, from Huddle Park golf club and Sylvia’s Market in the east of Johannesburg to Fourways in the north. In this model, audiences vote online for the films (including a child-friendly one), and the most popular two are screened, with people tuning in on their car radios.
The whims of the weather can obviously throw a spanner in the wheel, or reel. But Cape Town’s dry summers offer the ideal setting for open-air movies under the stars, usually accompanied by picnics and lashings of wine.
The Galileo Open Air Cinema screens movies from Tuesdays to Fridays and certain Saturdays and Sundays in venues in and around the Mother City, from wine estates to Kirstenbosch and the V&A Waterfront.
Upcoming movies for January range from the usual suspects to cult and contemporary fare such as The Big Lebowski; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; The Wedding Crashers and Zootopia.
Middle-class and artisanal
Another difference between the traditional drive-in and the pop-up drive-in or outdoor cinema is the cost and the target audience. While it used to be a cheapish family outing, in some quarters the outdoor cinema concept has gone middle-class and artisanal. Food stalls and gourmet picnic baskets are replacing the greasy-spoon "caf", and at some events you’ll even find glow sticks and selfie booths.
Evidently people are willing to pay to sample something different. For example, a romantic Valentine’s Day movie at Nooitgedacht Wine Estate near Stellenbosch will set you back R225 per person, including live music, a blanket, a welcome drink and a sweet treat.
At Spier wine estate and at Movies in the Park in Umhlanga, it will cost R95 to watch Pretty Woman (clearly the go-to date-night movie of choice) on Valentine’s Day in an idyllic setting. Cape Town’s Castle of Good Hope occasionally doubles up as an outdoor movie theatre, and will be showing the 2017 live-action version of the Beauty and the Beast movie as a fundraiser on February 17, with tickets at R70 apiece.
Even Johannesburg’s rainy summer weather isn’t dampening the popularity of the pop-up drive-in craze — and some are getting creative. At a December outing to the Killarney Country Club for its children’s pyjama drive-in the venue’s Crystal Room, usually reserved for functions and wedding receptions, was decked out with golf carts as an inventive replacement for cars.
Children and parents piled in, armed with blankets and pillows and oozing palpable excitement, to watch the Disney feature Moana on the big screen.
The price of the ticket included popcorn, a soft drink and two rather soggy reheated mini-pizzas — but also the services of child minders, so that parents could enjoy a meal in an adjacent room if they wanted to.
Tanith Madurai (10), who was there with her parents and a friend, said her first experience of a pop-up drive-in — albeit an indoor one — was "quite cool". She says: "At first I didn’t understand as I thought it would be outside and in cars, like you see on TV. So I was a bit disappointed, but it was still nice and a lot of fun."
Tanith said she enjoyed the novelty of watching a film in her pyjamas. "I’d already seen the movie a few times, but this was a different experience. I would definitely do it again. I would actually rather do that than go to the movies."
As for this particular family, our four-year-old daughter’s introduction to the drive-in concept was filled with wonder — and, notably, minus the fear she often associates with darkened cinemas with their overloud and hyperreal assaults on the senses. Perhaps it had something to do with being able to huddle under blankets during the "scary" bits.
Not even the fidgety toddlers and whimpering babies around her could dampen the kick she got out of her first drive-in encounter, which was most certainly not her last. "I enjoyed being in my pyjamas," she said afterwards. "And my favourite part was when Maui trapped Moana in the cave."
Maybe it is really about the movie, after all.