Drive-in revival: How COVID-19 saved the drive-in cinema

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 16 June 2020

Social-distancing steers cinema lovers back to the humble drive-in theatre.

Cinema lovers are going back to the future and heading to the drive-in in droves. In these days of social distancing, the state’s three remaining drive-ins – in Coburg, Dandenong and Dromana – are enjoying renewed popularity since reopening after 10 weeks of shutdown. 

Village Cinemas’ Coburg Drive-in, which has three screens and space for 900 cars, has recorded its best-ever audience numbers since reopening in the first week of June. “The opening week provided an all-time admissions record with over 10,000 people attending,” says Village spokesman Nicholas Robin. “Village Cinemas is delighted that the community are able to safely enjoy the big-screen experience once again.” 

Close up of neon drive-in sign


Operators expect this reignited popularity to continue, even when indoor cinemas reopen with limited seating on 22 June. Not only do drive-ins minimise concerns about social distancing, they’re also an affordable option in these straitened times, with Coburg charging from just $25 per carload while children under 12 get in free. RACV members get up to 30 per cent off individual Village tickets when bought online. 

Nicolas says the drive-in revival is not confined to nostalgic baby boomers hoping to relive the drive-in experience. “We’ve got a diverse range of customers from young millennial students, nostalgic baby boomers, and families, especially those with young children, for $25 a carload.” In June they’re watching a calendar of retro favourites including Dirty Dancing, The Wizard of Oz and Quarantino Wednesdays featuring Quentin Tarantino classics, plus some recent releases. 

It’s all good news for David Kilderry, who co-owns the independent Lunar Drive-in in Dandenong, which is also showing a mix of recent films and classics until new releases come on stream. David and his family have just invested $4 million in a 1950s-style diner at their drive-in, with the option of having meals delivered to your car.  

He believes the investment will pay off. “There’s no doubt there’s a revival,” he says. “Our bookings mid-week are twice as busy as usual but we were already doing well – we had 400,000 people last year.  

“Melbourne’s three drive-ins are about 50 minutes away from each other and draw on huge populations from different areas: Dandenong draws from Gippsland and the La Trobe Valley, Dromana for the whole Mornington Peninsula and Coburg from Melbourne’s vast northern and western suburbs.” 

There’s no doubt there’s a revival...Our bookings mid-week are twice as busy as usual.


Still, it remains to be seen whether this recent rebound in popularity signals a return to the glory days of the 1950s and ’60s when Australia boasted 330 drive-ins, 61 of them in Victoria.

David, who also runs drive-insdownunder.com.au, a website devoted to the history of drive-ins world-wide, says Australia was one of the drive-in capitals of the world, along with the US and Canada, thanks to our high car ownership, cheap land and fine weather. 

But by the 1980s the industry was in decline, struggling to compete against the newly popular home VCRs and multiplexes screening movies day and night. At the same time soaring property prices saw many drive-in lots sold off for more lucrative developments. 

“Many operators couldn’t justify holding on to big slabs of land that could be subdivided for housing or turned into industrial estates,” says Paul Whitaker, whose father built the Dromana drive-in in 1962, which the family still runs today. 

After the closure of the Oakleigh drive-in in 1990, just three drive-ins remained in metropolitan Melbourne, while the Moe and Shepparton drive-ins closed about 20 years ago. 

The Whitaker family hung on through the tough times, though, and have made the most of the two-month lockdown to work on a plan to help their 480-car drive-in bounce back stronger than ever. 

With a dearth of new studio releases this month, Paul has lined up an eclectic program of timeless classics, peppered with Bollywood favourites and extreme adventure features, including Warren Miller snow-sport epics. He is also flirting with the idea of introducing drive-in live music events. 


Screen savers

Not only do drive-ins minimise concerns about social distancing, they’re also an affordable option in these straitened times, with Coburg charging from just $25 per carload while children under 12 get in free. RACV members get up to 30 per cent off individual Village tickets when bought online.