THEN AND NOW: 16 photos that show how drive-in theaters are making a comeback

drive in movie theaters then and now
A drive-in movie in 1948 (left) and in 2020.
Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images, MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP via Getty Images
  • Drive-in movies, once popular in the 1950s and '60s, are making a comeback due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Many are operating at 50% capacity, giving out face masks, and enacting social distancing measures.
  • Traditional indoor theaters are still shuttered during lockdown.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

There used to be thousands of drive-in movie theaters across the US. Now, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association, there are only 305 still in operation. But in 2020, business is booming.

A fixture of the 1950s and '60s, drive-in movies have made a comeback during the coronavirus pandemic. Since outdoor spaces are generally less risky, and each group can remain in their own car, drive-in movies have been allowed to open while traditional indoor theaters are still shuttered.

Many aspects of the drive-in experience have changed since they first became popular decades ago. Here's how drive-in movies have changed over the years.

A sales manager named Richard Hollingshead opened the first drive-in movie theater in 1933.

vintage drive in
A drive-in theater in the 1950s.
Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

After Hollingshead's mother complained about uncomfortable theater seats, he came up with the idea for a cozier movie-watching experience. He opened his first drive-in theater in 1933.

With most regular movie theaters closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, drive-in theaters are seeing a resurgence.

drive in movie theater coronavirus
Cars line up at the ticket booth to enter the Ocala Drive-in Theatre in 2020.
Paul Hennessy/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The coronavirus is primarily spread through person-to-person contact, putting large gatherings in places like traditional movie theaters on hold. But at drive-in theaters, it's easier to practice social distancing.

In the old days, signs at drive-in theaters advertised movie showings.

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Curtis Field on the Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream was New York's first drive-in theater.
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The outdoor theaters operated rain or shine.

Now, signs warn about the dangers of COVID-19.

drive in movie theater coronavirus
The Warwick Drive-In in Warwick, New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed drive-ins and other "low-risk" outdoor businesses to reopen on May 15 during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Warwick Drive-In in Warwick, New York, is operating at half its capacity to allow for social distancing between cars.

Admission to drive-in theaters cost around 25 cents in the 1930s.

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A drive-in theater in Los Angeles in the 1930s.
Popperfoto/Getty Images

Hollingshead showed a British comedy called "Wives Beware" at the first drive-in.

Today, drive-in movie tickets usually cost around $10.

Drive-in movie theater in Germany
A drive-in cinema in Essen, Germany, in 2020.
Martin Meissner/AP

There are often discounts for children and seniors, or a flat price per car. The prices are lower than regular movie tickets, adding to the appeal even before the pandemic.

Concessions used to be brought to individual cars during screenings.

vintage drive in
A carhop in 1948.
Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Carhops served trays of food and drinks to guests in their cars.

During the pandemic, staff are giving out face masks, instead.

drive in movie theater
A staff member distributes a protective face mask to drive-in theater guests.

Face coverings help slow the spread of the virus.

At drive-in theaters today, concessions can be purchased at a stand from a safe distance.

drive in movie theater
People order food at the concession stand at the Warwick Drive-In in 2020.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Signs remind movie-goers that face masks and social distancing practices are required.

In the heyday of drive-in movies, young couples enjoyed the privacy of watching a film from their car.

vintage drive in theatres
A couple kissing in the front seat of a convertible car at a drive-in movie theater in the 1940s.
American Stock Archives/Getty Images

It's much easier to steal a kiss in a car than in a crowded movie theater.

With face masks on, PDA becomes a little more difficult.

drive in movie theater coronavirus
A couple waits for food at the concession stand at the Warwick Drive-In.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Coming up with safe date ideas during the pandemic can be challenging.

At their essence, drive-in movies haven't changed that much.

vintage drive in theatre
A family watches a movie at a drive-in theater.
Francis Miller/Getty Images

They were a popular family-friendly activity.

Families can still enjoy films from the front seats of their cars.

drive in movie theater coronavirus
A family watches drive-in movie at the Bel Aire Diner in Queens in 2020.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

With drive-in theaters operating at 50% capacity to allow for social distancing, the view of the screen is even better.

Their popularity waned as land costs increased and at-home movies became the norm, but they're experiencing a renaissance in 2020.

vintage drive in
People watch a movie from inside their cars at the Whitestone Bridge Drive-in Movie Theater in the Bronx in 1951.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are now only 305 drive-in theaters left in the US.

Perhaps drive-in movies will remain a favorite even after it's safe to return to regular indoor theaters.

drive in movie theater coronavirus
A drive-in movie screening in Bordeaux, France, in 2020.

It's also possible that some movie theaters won't survive the financial losses incurred during lockdown.

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