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Parking lots and projection screens: Drive-ins make case for the new ‘night out’

Because these days, a night ‘out’ means an evening in your car

A woman watches a  movie from her car at the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Virginia, on May 1.
A woman watches a movie from her car at the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Virginia, on May 1. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“It’s really about showing up,” says Brandon McEachern. “How do you show up in these times?”

McEachern is co-founder of Broccoli City, an organization that mobilizes and educates urban millennials on “how to create a better world,” according to its website.

For the community group, “showing up” looks like a digital university that means business, a fitness event and 5K, and an eponymous annual music festival (which has featured hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B).

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled any chance of Roddy Ricch and Doja Cat making headlines at this year’s Broccoli City Festival in Southeast D.C., so organizers took to another trend.

A family sits in their trunk before the start of a movie as they and other health care professionals and their families gather for the soft opening of the drive-in movie theater at RFK Stadium in Washington on July 15, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“The best way we can show up is a movie theater at RFK,” McEachern told Heard on the Hill.

On Friday night, “Park Up DC” will open to the public from a once-empty parking lot next to the abandoned stadium. Forty-five-foot HD LED screens will feature films like “Jurassic Park,” “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Friday.”

It’s no concert, but Broccoli City isn’t closing the curtains on a modified version of live events just yet.

“We’re still playing it by ear,” McEachern said. In the meantime, bring on the Sonic-Fridays double features.

While the drive-in movie movement has become more popular (as stir-crazy individuals yearn for something that’s equal parts something to do and socially distant), another drive-in theater has already been around the block a few times in Northeast D.C.

A family sets up their trunk before the start of a movie as they and other health care professionals and their families gather for the soft opening of the ParkUp drive-in movie theater at RFK Stadium in Washington on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Now in its eighth year, the Drive-in at Union Market has seen an increase in demand — along with some new pandemic limitations.

“For social distancing reasons, no walk-ups, bike-ups, or picknickers are allowed,” the guidelines on the website read. “All guests must be in their vehicle at all times.”

And the rules, along with family-friendly movie options, are about the same elsewhere.

For Jim Kopp, a night at the drive-in once felt like a “tailgate party.” He’s a retired Library of Congress logistics manager who runs the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Virginia.

But because of social distancing, Kopp’s “tailgate parties” are looking more subdued these days.

Luke, 9, and Meghan Parrott sit in their family’s car before a movie is shown at the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, Virginia, on May 1, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“You must maintain a 6 ft distance between you and other movie guests,” reads one of the theater’s revised policies.

Face masks are “HIGHLY RECOMMENDED,” and purchases for concessions must be made online.

Aside from movies like “Shrek” and “Iron Man,” the all-beef hot dogs are a hit too. It’s “usually cheeseburgers,” Kopp told Heard on the Hill in May. The french fries are a consistent top seller.

But perhaps the most pleasant rule mandated for customers is to simply “have fun.” A nice reminder that watching a movie can be a nice escape — even when you’re inside a car.

McEachern might agree. “You can’t go wrong with ‘Jurassic Park,’” he says. “It’s safe, affordable fun.”

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