Most moviegoers check showtimes before heading to their favorite theater; some of us consult the weather report. Multiplexes are like Tolstoy’s happy families: They all resemble one another in their boxiness and banal cheer. But each drive-in has its distinct personality. My list of rural favorites starts with Idaho’s modest Parma Motor-Vu, smack in the middle of farmland, virtually unchanged over five decades. For cineasts, the world’s greatest Best Western might be Colorado’s Movie Manor, a combo drive-in/motor inn with in-room speakers. Closer to the big city, Buffalo’s Transit and L.A.’s Mission Tiki, both with four screens, pull in 1,000 cars on any given summer weekend night. Outside Detroit, the nine-screen Ford-Wyoming stays open through blizzards, with in-car heaters.
Sure, drive-ins are down from 4,000-plus at their late-’50s peak to about a tenth of that today. But in places like Texas, new builds and reopenings are finally outpacing razings, and cars line up hours before dusk at top locales. It’s not just nostalgia; drive-ins provide a singularly libertarian experience. Tired of other patrons’ yapping? Roll the windows up. In the mood for a Mystery Science mockathon with your neighbors? Bring lawn chairs. Volume? Up to you. Want to answer your cell, smoke, nuzzle, nurse a baby, or curse Michael Bay? Here’s your parking spot. Did we mention double features at sub-run prices and — calling frequent breeders! — kids under 12 free? Gravy.
But here’s the crucial thing: Any D movie is magically elevated to a B at a drive-in. Pitted against open vistas at 30 feet high, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Farrell, even Rob Schneider become magisterial giants in God’s own photoplay. And if the screen stars let you down, the ones in the firmament might still come through.