Ever since I learned about the concept of drive-in movies from, well, old movies, I’ve always wanted to go. I romanticized what the experience would be like sitting with my car in park, my own snacks in hand, listening to some old film broadcast over the side speakers. But it was never an option anywhere I’ve ever lived.
A true relic of the past, drive-in movie theaters are few and far between. Developed for 1950’s suburbia, only a few hundred survived throughout the country, usually scattered across rural communities and hard to get to locations. Near San Francisco, you could only find a handful of drive-in theaters in places like Concord and Redwood City—but they were typically only open for a few months in the summer and a little too far to drive from the city.
Thanks to the pandemic (how often do we get to say that?!) drive-in movie theaters experienced a much-needed revival, as they provide a Covid-safe space for collective entertainment and community gathering. They’ve popped up in big cities and their surrounding areas, converting empty, unused spaces into little beacons of fun activity that provide a sense of smalltown community—and all at a safe distance. San Francisco didn’t miss the opportunity.
My first drive-in movie experience was everything I expected—and more
When I heard that Fort Mason was turning its idled parking lot into a venue for old movie screenings I was thrilled—and I’m clearly not alone. Tickets to movies for the Fort Mason Flix Festival are a little hard to come by. Even with several screenings a week, they’ve been selling out fast. I imagine that, like me, so many San Francisco residents are hungry for new experiences amidst statewide closures of major public venues and events. We probably also just miss seeing people in real life.
Anyway. I finally managed to snag tickets to The Godfather. There was something about going to see a three-hour old school cult classic that just seemed like the right fit for my first drive-in movie theater experience. I made a date out of it with my boyfriend, and we planned out our arrival and car snacks.
It was strange rolling up to a quiet parking lot outside of Fort Mason Center, which is usually packed with cars for some event or another. I realized that I haven’t had a reason to go there since shelter in place started. But upon entering the main lot I clearly saw the signs pointing me in the direction of the screen and was guided by a friendly and very enthusiastic staff of masked employees in orange reflective jackets. I pulled in and showed my e-ticket to a staffer on my phone and was guided to an empty parking space just a couple of rows back from the big center screen.
From our protective bubble, we waved and smiled at our fellow moviegoers in the cars next to us. Everyone seemed giddy just to be there. Some were already chowing down on their dinner and snacks. Others were clearly on dates, like myself. I think my favorite people were the ones who got there super early, parked backward, popped the trunk, and cozied up on their air mattresses, sleeping bags, and blankets in the back of their cars. It was heartwarming seeing other humans all gathered together again in one thing—an escape.
After parking and getting comfortable, I masked up and walked over to the food truck that was once there to pick up our dinner and bring it back to our own front-row seats. We dug into our steamed coca-cola braised pork and miso braised tofu buns as soon as I hopped back in the car. Going to a food truck was also something I haven’t done since the beginning of the pandemic, and those Chairman steam buns were even better than I remember.
We were just finishing up when the previews—which were mostly a montage of all the cult classics, kid favorites, and fun contemporary flicks Fort Mason is screening—started. We tuned into the radio station broadcasting the audio for the movie, reclined our seats back, pulled up a blanket, and settled in for our movie. We brought our own chocolate-covered raisins and hot toddies for dessert. It was perfect.
Here’s how drive-in movies are better than regular movies, and why they’re so needed right now
My first experience at the drive-in was, indeed, as special as I’d expected it to be. It was in actually doing it, however, that I realized why it’s so wonderful (and, perhaps, even necessary) to have an experience like that right now.
For starters, it’s comfortable to sit in your car. I was able to recline my seat all the way back and kick up my shoeless feet without annoying anyone. In the same vein, I also felt free to give my commentary throughout the movie or squeal during the violent scenes.
If you think about it, it’s way better than going to the movie theater for a date night or family activity with young kids, as you don’t have to sit in silence for two hours. With every car serving as its own little enclave, you can actually interact with your crew. It’s the perfect hybrid—it’s public, but it’s private, which allows you to have a more intimate experience to watch the film on your own terms.
Driving there makes it a destination—it’s a thing to do, a place to go. And the atmosphere, with jolly staffers dancing around with their batons and food trucks serving up snacks, makes it special. Much like the culture experienced at independent theaters, drive-ins are typically run by small, local companies as opposed to large, soulless corporations.
On a deeper level, the reason drive-ins are better—and, I’d argue, needed right now—is not only because it allows our community an opportunity to gather in a safe way, but it also taps into a nostalgia many are craving. The actual physical experience harks back to another era. And the movies screened are a combination of cult films, kid’s classics, and contemporary favorites. With everything so uncertain right now, knowing what you’re getting is particularly comforting—as is feeling like you’re being transported back to a simpler time.
Convinced yet? Super. Here are some tips to keep in mind before you go.
If you want to experience the drive-in at Fort Mason, there are a few things to note before you go.
First, show up early. While every spot has good viewing, the closer you are to the front, the better. If you want to order food from the on-site mobile food vendor, I would highly recommend ordering ahead. That way you can pick up your order as you’re driving in or shortly after you’ve parked.
If you get cold easily, bring blankets. While we stayed pretty toasty in our car, it was nice to snuggle in towards the end of the movie. Also, it’s a good idea to make sure your car’s front windshield is clean. I made the rookie mistake of not doing that and found myself wiping it down during the previews.
I’ve now gone several more times—with my kids, a girlfriend in my pod—and each time and the experience has been well worth it.
I hope you make it to the drive-in while it’s still around. Hopefully, it’s one fun and different way (and there are a few) to get you through what could otherwise be a bleak Covid winter.
Byline: Renee Frojo