Cinemas And The Return Of The Drive-In


Photo of Jericho Drive In (the world’s smallest) by Graham Adams

In any learned discussion about cinemas and movies, it does not take long for someone to relate that old Dad joke about two goats.

(Two goats are munching on a spool of film at the local dump). First goat: “What did you think?

Second goat: “I preferred the book”.

It’s a bit that way one episode into the SBS series Archangel, based on the thriller by Robert Harris about an academic who stumbles upon the lost diaries of Joseph Stalin. But I digress.

I don’t know about you, but even with the cinemas open again, I am loathe to sequester myself in a dark, air conditioned room with a posse of strangers. Who knows where they have been!

My main objection to attending cinemas at this point in time was (until I read up on the topic), the dangers of the virus being spread by air-conditioning. Safe Work Australia says there is no evidence that COVID-19 is airborne – it is primarily spread by respiratory droplets and personal contact. All the same, one would hope businesses are taking extra care with cleaning and maintenance of air-con plants. So, I might just be anti-social, then?

The allure of the cinema has been eroded by the variety of in-home cinematic content available in the Cloud, much of it ‘free’. Despite telling ourselves we should be watching the foreign movies available on SBS or new release movies on subscription services, we usually end up binge-watching 50-minute episodes of TV dramas.

The most recent was season five (Prime) of the excellent UK series Line of Duty, about a fictional police corruption unit called AC12. There will be no spoilers here if you only got to season three or four, but safe to say series six is ready to go. Filming was supposed to start on series six earlier this year, but COVID-19 intervened.

Anyone who works in the Arts will know how that sector has been hit harder by the pandemic than, say, the National Rugby League.

The last movie we saw at the local cinema was ‘A beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’, in which Tom Hank plays the role of TV children’s entertainer “Mr Rogers”. We went with a small group, who met for coffee and drinks afterwards to discuss the movie. Perhaps I’m just a jaded, cynical journalist, but I found agreeing with Empire Online’s opening remark: “It could easily have been twee twaddle…:.:

I hasten to add Empire went on to give the movie a solid review. Based on a true story, the plot involves a magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel, who sets out to do a hatchet job. But he ends up receiving life lessons from the benevolent Mr Rogers. The film is based on a feature article by Tom Junee.

The other place where you can safely go to watch movies is your local drive-in theatre. What, you don’t have one? Research indicates there are still at least 16 drive-in theatres active in Australia, and more than a few ‘pop-up’ venues.

If you are of my vintage, you probably remember the glory days of the drive-in theatre. For those who cannot envisage the concept, a drive-in theatre is an open piece of land, usually on the town’s outskirts. People pay to come in and park their cars and watch movies on a very large screen. In the 1950s and 60s, those attending drive-in theatres attached speakers to their car windows (trying to remember not to drive off without hanging them back on the posts). Today, with FM radio, Bluetooth and streaming audio, it is a cinch to listen to the digital sound track in your car.

The drive in theatre liberated teenagers of the 1950s, an era where it was not uncommon for a boy keen on a certain girl to ask her father’s permission to take her on a date.

The drive-in offered teenagers a rare few hours of privacy at a venue where they may or may not have watched the whole movie. There are only three major drive-in theatres in Queensland: the Tivoli (near Ipswich), the Yatala drive-in at the Gold Coast and the Starlight theatre in Ayr (north Queensland). At one stage in the 1950s, there were 300 drive-ins in Australia, the third largest number in the world, after the US and Canada.

Outback cinemas are essential entertainment in small, remote locations. The Paraburdoo Drive In Theatre in Western Australia recently re-opened after a COVID19 induced hiatus. There is also a drive-in in the mining town of Tom Price.

Last Saturday’s double bill was ‘Moana’ and ‘Jumanji’, and meals were served. Tom Price is a town of 3,000 people, median age 31, which probably explains last Saturday’s kid-friendly choice of movie.

The benefit of a drive-in for families is fairly obvious – as Paul Kelly sings – ‘Mum and Dad up the front and the rest of us snug and tight’.

Developers would tell you it is not the highest and best use of urban land and indeed some former drive-ins have been replaced by big box warehouses, retirement villages and the like. While urban sprawl and competition from in-home digital entertainment has put paid to many, nevertheless, the drive in prevails. Australia’s largest theatre, the Lunar Theatre at Dandenong in Victoria, is a big operation. One of the country’s oldest, it closed in 1984 and re-opened in 2002. Now, with a capacity of 960 cars, its four screens operate seven days a week. Conversely, the smallest (at Jericho in Queensland), has room for 36 cars

The effects of Covid-19 on the entertainment industry has forced entrepreneurs to come up with novel ways of making a quid. There is more than one example of promoters staging drive-in concerts to give punters and artists a safe live forum.

Untitled Group had planned an elaborate drive-in show at Flemington Racecourse in July. A new promotional division, The Drive In, planned a dozen such concerts, each for up to 500 cars. But as organisers state in this link, they had no choice but to cancel as the COVID-19 situation in Victoria worsened. For Australian musicians, unfettered travel is essential to earning a living.

So far, no-one has come up with a scheme in which punters get to enjoy live music while those performing get paid what they’re worth.

We are a bit keen on film festivals, where you can binge on quality movies for up to a week. We may yet head North-West next month for the the Vision Splendid International Film Festival at Winton. The key advantage for those who take COVID-19 seriously is that the majority of movies are screened in the town’s historic open-air cinema. I have attended this festival twice and written about it once.

The festival has been held in late June every year since 2014. In 2020, a decision was made to postpone the event to September 18-26. Coincidentally, the festival was officially launched in Brisbane this week. It remains to be seen if interstate visitors will be allowed to travel to Queensland’s outback by mid-September.

In the interim, this at-risk bloke will confine his entertainment to YouTube music videos, Prime, SBS, ABC on Demand and the NRL (which is entertaining in all manner of unexpected ways).



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