The drive-in is alive and well in BC

John Cairns

My annual summer vacation to the Okanagan region of British Columbia included something different this year.

This year we took a trip to the drive-in! Yes, my family, including my two nieces, hit the road to Enderby, B.C. for a night watching a movie at the Starlight Drive-In.

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This was the first time I had been to a drive-in movie at an actual drive-in in years — not counting these one-night outdoor movies that have turned up in North Battleford the last few years. The last time I’d been to a real drive-in movie theatre must have been in the early 1980s near Saskatoon, so I was really looking forward to going to a drive-in again. I was not disappointed. 

The movie we saw was The Incredibles 2, a Disney-PIXAR production. I can definitely recommend this movie to those of you with families. My nieces were still raving about it when they got home.

While this movie claims to be a “Disney” release, it really does seem more like a “Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera” production. Like the “Cars” series before it and the “Incredibles” movies clearly take their inspiration from Saturday morning cartoons.

As prime example of that, there was a scene where the kids watch an episode of Jonny Quest on the television. From what I’ve read, director Brad Bird was a big fan of Jonny Quest, so he wanted to pay tribute to that TV show. Good stuff.

We did not stay for the second half of the double feature, which was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. We felt it might be too scary for the kids. Still, we had gotten our money’s worth.

The Starlight took me back to an earlier time, when drive-ins were all the rage throughout North America and double-features were common at both indoor and outdoor cinemas.

The fact that we were outdoors gave us a chance to take part in some outdoor activities before the movie began. Other patrons had brought along Nerf footballs to toss to each other before the movie. My nieces brought their soccer ball and kicked it around in front of the big screen, reputed to be the biggest in North America.

According to their website, the screen is 6,000 square feet, and its dimensions are 50 by 120 feet.

For watching the movie, you had the opportunity to either sit outdoors in your lawn chairs or watch from inside your vehicle. The one difference from the old days is that you no longer have to roll down your windows to set up clunky speakers providing the audio, always an open invitation for mosquitoes. Here, you could hear the audio by way of an FM signal on your car radio.  

From what I gather, the Starlight is packed every night it is open. It is not far from Vernon and Salmon Arm, and is within close driving range of Kelowna and Kamloops, so it has a big population base to draw on.

This was the only drive-in in the entire region, so if you live in Kelowna or Kamloops and want to see a drive-in movie, you hit the road for Enderby. That makes this drive-in not simply a movie venue but also a tourist attraction.

The other thing that helps is that Enderby is a small community, and the drive-in is its only movie venue. If you want to see a movie in Enderby, the place to go is the Starlight.

The main thing this venue has going for it is that there is a pent-up demand to watch movies outdoors. Everyone I talk to has fond memories of going to the drive-in, and there is a big nostalgia factor. 

This particular venue played up their “retro” appeal, with retro Pepsi-Cola signs visible and especially cheesy drive-in intermission ads that were straight out of the 1960s. These ads urge you to go to the concession for drinks and popcorn.

The bottom line for me is that it was simply fun to go watch a movie at a real, permanent drive-in again after so many years. I was reminded of why I like the movies in the first place.

In fact, I realize I’ve gotten jaded over the years from all the annoyances and stupid rules and regulations associated with indoor movie theatres. The drive-in experience has indoor theatres beat in several ways.

For one thing, you can actually use your mobile devices during the movie. Here we are, living in a social media world where people are always using their cellphones to call each other, text each other, take selfies or look at Facebook or Twitter. Yet at traditional multiplexes, you’re always being told by management to shut the devices off. It’s annoying.

At the drive-in, you can use mobile devices any time, in the privacy of your vehicles, without fear of ticking off your fellow moviegoers or anyone in management. Just make sure the screens aren’t too bright, and make sure you aren’t using your devices to take video of the movie. Piracy is still a big crime.   

Here’s another advantage. The drive-ins are a heck of a lot less crowded than your average multiplex. Having to fight lineups of people is always the worst part of going to a cinema. Then, once you get in, you then have to worry that you might accidentally kick the seat in the row in front of you.

At this drive-in, you don’t have any of that going on. Even on a busy evening, there was enough space to move around and stretch your legs. Plus, you get to enjoy the fresh air, instead of the stench of popcorn associated with indoor theatres.  

One advantage drive-ins have been notorious for is young lovers can make out with each other in their vehicles during the movie. That’s yet one more activity indoor cinemas would frown upon. They surely are the No-Fun League.

Yes, downsides exist to the drive-in experience. mosquitoes and weather being the biggest ones. But they seem to be customer-friendly in ways traditional movie theatres cannot be. Plus, the screen is always going to be big, guaranteed.    

I’m thinking the drive-in ought to make a big comeback, for all these reasons. 

In other parts of the world, the comeback is already happening. In China, drive-ins have been all the rage, with new outdoor theatres springing up over the last decade. Clearly, the Chinese know a good thing when they see it.  

Here in North Battleford, outdoor movie nights have been held north of the Frontier Centre in the past two years. They have always been a huge hit, with lineups of cars all the way down the street. Clearly, there is an audience for it here at home.

The downside in Canada is that the drive-in season is always going to be confined to warm-weather months, so there’s always going to be a limited amount of revenue to be made. Winters in Canada are simply too darn cold.

Have you ever tried watching a drive-in movie in -30 C conditions with a howling blizzard going?

Come to think of it, this could be an idea for a drive-in promotion at the Starlight Drive-in. Blizzard night!

“Watch a double-feature on the big screen wearing your parka at the drive-in! In between movies, take part in skiing and snowboarding! You can even roast marshmallows!”

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. The drive-in movie experience is great, but not that great.

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