Drive-Ins Spread Through Hollywood (And Beyond)

A night out in Hollywood at the Legion Drive-In. (Courtesy Hollywood Legion Drive-In)

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As the prospects for going back to see movies indoors anytime soon grows dimmer, pop-up drive-ins are spreading. Now you can enjoy a socially distanced movie with dozens of other cars from Santa Monica to Montclair, along with more points in between.

In the heart of Hollywood, you're even getting new(ish) movies. The much-hyped Tenet started playing nightly on Saturday at the Hollywood Legion Drive-In, a drive-in set up outside an American Legion hall just south of the Hollywood Bowl, ahead of the movie's home release. The screen might not be the IMAX that director Christopher Nolan had envisioned, but it's keeping the theatrical experience alive while we can't be together in a movie theater.

The movie is the biggest Warner Bros. release since the pandemic began and one of its last releases before announcing that Wonder Woman 1984 would kick off plans to put all of its new movies on streaming site HBO Max through 2021. And the Legion Drive-In will be screening Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day too — tickets go on sale Thursday at 9 a.m., making it one of the few places in the city to see the movie in-person.

Hollywood's American Legion Post 43 had recently renovated to add a $5 million theater with almost 500 seats, with the ability to screen both 35 millimeter and 70 millimeter film. But COVID-19 has meant a theater left empty most of this year.

"I actually went to Bill Steele, the theater director, and told him that I really thought that we should consider converting our parking lot back here into a drive-in theater," the Legion's chief projectionist Taylor Umphenour told LAist. He also works as a projectionist for the Motion Picture Academy and several of the major studios.

COVID-safe, pre-packaged concessions delivery at the Hollywood Legion Drive-In. (Courtesy Hollywood Legion Drive-In)

The idea for the drive-in came because the parking lot is nestled at the base of the Hollywood Hills, meaning it doesn't have a lot of ambient light — the perfect experience for a drive-in, according to Umphenour. The makeshift drive-in opened in October after Umphenour pitched it in the spring and worked with the city to get permits through the summer, and Tenet marks its first major recent studio release.

The drive-in has been filling an appetite since opening up, with most screenings so far being sold out, according to Umphenour. It's been a bright spot during a tough time for the Legion during the pandemic.

"It's been a challenge, I think the way it's been a challenge for every venue and for every business," Umphenour said. "We feel like, if we can continue to offer something for the community, keep our staff employed, that's a win."

According to Umphenour, they're just trying to keep their heads above water. He appreciates that the drive-in has helped to provide people structure during these unusual times.

"We have an older couple who have come here I think 14 or 15 times in the past month-and-a-half that we've been open," Umphenour said. "They've got their favorite spot — it's like having a favorite table at a restaurant."

Grease at a Rooftop Cinema Club screening. (Courtesy Rooftop Cinema Club)

Meanwhile, out in Santa Monica, Rooftop Cinema Club has converted the local airport into a pop-up drive-in. Showing outdoor movies is a seasonal business, and they had just been planning to show movies on rooftops across the country starting in the spring. But once COVID-19 hit, they had to pivot.

"Our general manager said, 'What about drive-ins?' And I thought, 'Oh, wow, that's safe, it's nostalgic, and maybe it will just really connect,'" Rooftop Cinemas Founder Gerry Cottle Jr. told LAist.

Rooftop Cinemas is also working with the local community, including discounted community screenings with proceeds going to the L.A. Regional Food Bank. Cottle's a part of that community himself.

"I'm a Brit who's desperate to be by the beach," Cottle said. "I used to drive past it. I had my eye on it for a long time."

Home Alone Christmas decorations at Rooftop Cinema Club's Santa Monica Airport drive-in. (Courtesy Rooftop Cinema Club)

Cottle hopes to draw some of the Westside audience out to the drive-in, for those who don't want to drive further out to hit some of the more established drive-ins.

The airport drive-in plans to go heavy on the Christmas classics this month, as do many other drive-ins across the area. While Rooftop Cinema Club has traditionally drawn a more adult crowd, the drive-in has ended up bringing in more of a family audience, so they're including some classic family films as well. They're currently only committed through the end of the month, but hope to continue screening movies at the location in the future.

"The first drive-in was started in 1933, so that was just after the Great Depression," Cottle said. "So weirdly, it was made for times of turmoil. It obviously helped people there through tough times. And here, it's returned to help people through COVID — I really believe that."

They had been doing late-night screenings, but they've had to pull back due to curfews in the stricter stay-at-home orders that Southern California has been under.

A Rooftop Cinema Club outdoor drive-in. (Courtesy Rooftop Cinema Club)

The owner of independent theater Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Christian Meoli, thought he might be able to reopen his Hollywood theater back in June. But as the summer spike hit, that didn't happen. But he combed the area to find the right spot, from Glendale to West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. He finally found just the place, right behind an architectural film icon: the Egyptian Theatre.

Now he's worked with the city to screen movies outside, including getting 18 separate departments to sign off on it, according to Meoli.

It wasn't easy — "You try to get 18 different departments to sign off on something when city buildings are closed, and everybody's working remote," Meoli told LAist.

He opened up his drive-in at the beginning of the month. He also received a grant from L.A. County and a loan from the city of L.A., which he's using to keep his business going. As Meoli put it, once the pandemic shutdowns began, he basically became a grant writer.

"Because, for me, it's about the survival of my business," Meoli said. "And it's also about the survival of film culture and exhibition in our city."

He feels that, ultimately, movie theaters are going to need a government bailout.

"Politicians, and the general public, and all of us are going to have to ask if we want to lose something so cherished, and such a gem to our culture, and society, and existence — do we want to lose it on our watch?" Meoli said.


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One of the key things that theaters provide, Meoli said, is the personalized curation that he feels you don't get from an algorithm. An example of that: a screening of Shane Black movies set at Christmas, starting on Christmas Day.

"On streaming platforms, which are search-driven, you can't find what to watch," Meoli said. "We go, 'there's nothing on Netflix, there's nothing on HBO Max, there's nothing.'"

They're looking to bring some of the upscale experience that they had back when we watched movies inside, including 10 different blends of gourmet popcorn.

"We're all in, and I'm asking Angelenos and the industry to support this little David versus Goliath," Meoli said. "To everyone who is slamming the coffin, or jumping on the hate train on movie theaters, give this one some shining love."

Alongside the screenings open to the broader public, a number of drive-ins are making themselves available for everything from birthday parties to Oscar-qualifying screenings.

Meoli said the response to being able to screen movies at your own private drive-in has been "off the charts. People want to see movies."

But one of the big-money areas they're moving into is working with the studios to hold For Your Consideration events, where studios screen movies and TV shows to awards voters and try to earn nominations.

Along with drive-in tickets, the Hollywood Legion is also soliciting donations to help the veterans institution. But, according to Umphenour, the best way to support them right now is to just buy a ticket for a drive-in screening and tell your friends about it.

As the pandemic situation starts to improve, Umphenour foresees opening up the inside screenings again, along with continuing shows at the drive-in — perhaps even screening movies at the same time inside and outside.

"You feel that you're maybe at greater risk, you can go to the drive-in and see the same film that somebody is seeing in the theater, and you all get to have that collective experience on the same night," Umphenour said.

Legion drive-in projectionist Umphenour was a part of the Hollywood magic behind Tenet himself — he served as director Christopher Nolan's projectionist during the production of that film, screening film dailies from each day's production on 70 millimeter film for the director.