Are Drive-Ins the Theaters of the Future?

The folks at Bengies sure hope so.

The entertainment industry—and movies in particular—has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus.

Tons of films have shut down production or been delayed. And then there’s the larger, perhaps even more concerning question: Will people want to go back to movie theaters, where we’re all sitting in close proximity, munching on snacks, laughing, and breathing the same air?

Of course, there is one way to see a movie in public without having to sit near a bunch of strangers: You guessed it, drive-in movie theaters.

Drive-in theaters, once a staple of American culture, have waned to the point of near extinction today. (There are reportedly 350 left in the country, down from a peak of about 4,000 in the 1950s.) But is it possible that the theaters of the past might become the theaters of the future?

There is one famous drive-in movie theater right here in Maryland—Bengies Drive-In in Middle River, in business since 1956—which is sure hoping that’s the case.

“It does make a lot of sense,” says Ken Adam, Bengies’ general manager. “I’d love to see more drive-ins.”

Adam has even heard that some of the big chain theaters—“the indoors” as he calls them—are considering some sort of model where they show films in their parking lots. But that would take a complete reinvention for those chains. Bengies already has the infrastructure.

Adam says that many customers have assumed that Bengies is open—and are “itching” for the theater to start showing movies again.

“We get lots of messages throughout the week from people asking if we’re open, asking about showtimes,” he says.

For now, they’re abiding by Governor Hogan’s social distancing guidelines, but they are discussing strategies for when the theater does reopen. And they do suspect they’ll get the green light before the big chains—with a caveat.

“Film studios are not going to release their big titles until everybody’s open,” he says. “So [when we do open], we’ll be limited to older films and revivals.”

As for the concessions stand, he says it’s unlikely they will turn to a carhop style model. He likens the Bengies concessions to a take-out restaurant.

“It’s a large snack bar in an open field,” he says, noting that it will be easy to stand six feet apart while getting your Coke and popcorn.

Meanwhile, the theater is doing its best to stay positive and use what it has at its disposal—namely its iconic art deco marquee—to send out a message of encouragement to its customers.

An earlier marquee message read: “Governor Hogan’s Rules To Live By. Avoid Crowds. Stay Home. Practice Distance. Wash Hands. Wash Hands. Wash. Protect Others By Protecting You.”

The current marquee reads: “Don’t Leave Home Without It!: The Mask” and “Stuck At Home? Dwell on What You Can Do, Not What You Can’t.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.