It’s tough to experience the quintessential American drive-in these days. You could motor up to Bengies in Baltimore or out to rural Virginia, or huddle in a car squinting at Netflix on an iPad, yes. But finding someplace convenient, where you can bask in the warm glow of the screen and the dashboard at the same time, has been impossible. Until now! Union Market’s new DC Drive-In brings the 1950s staple to the heart of the District, if only for a few weeks.
The team at Union Market and the D.C. Committee on Arts and Humanities had to make some concessions to the urban environment. There’s a picnic area for folks who arrive by foot or bike. And Washingtonians spoiled by food trucks and fancy cinema snacks now have higher dining expectations.
“I don’t think you could get gourmet food at a drive-in back in the ’50s,” says Steven Boyle, managing director of Union Market. Vendors such as TaKorean and Curbside Cupcakes will be open for business; stale popcorn with butter-ish chemicals won’t be on anyone’s menu.
The evening starts at 7 p.m. with music, contests and giveaways. Members of the D.C. Rollergirls will zoom around with snacks for purchase. Reservations for the car lot are all gone, but drive-ins are welcome: Line up on southbound Sixth Street NE. The lot opens at 8 p.m. and showtime’s at 9.
Strange as it may seem to prepare for a movie by turning off your headlights, it’s certainly worth trying once in your life. Just unfasten your seat belt and enjoy the ride.
What you’ve seen in films isn’t necessarily what goes down at the DC Drive-In. Here’s your guide for novices:
1. Smuggling friends onto the lot in the trunk of your car won’t save money, because the event is free.
2. You will not be attaching a speaker to your car. Instead, tune your car radio to 88.1 FM. If you’re sitting in the picnic area, there will be speakers, and all films will be captioned.
3. Making out is not only allowed, “but highly encouraged,” Boyle says.
All four DC Drive-In films are D.C.-centric, starting with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb on July 12, because nothing says “family fun” like the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Next is The Distinguished Gentleman on July 19. It stars Eddie Murphy as a con man who has the same name as a deceased congressman, making it easy for him to win the guy’s seat and get his own show on Fox News (not really). The American President, in which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin shows the lack of knowledge of D.C. geography that would later plague him on “The West Wing,” plays on July 26. The Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out wraps things up Aug. 2.
Hack Your Own Drive-In
In 2005, mobile movie hobbyist Bryan Kennedy founded mobmov.org, an online community that supports and facilitates guerrilla drive-ins around the world. (MobMov boasts more than 20,000 members across 36 countries who stage drive-in screenings in public outdoor spaces.) Care to give it a try? This particular set-up requires a modest investment in equipment, but smaller-scale viewings on roofs, and in backyards or driveways, don’t require gear this specialized. Holley Simmons (Express)
The Power Source: You’ll want to screen your movie in a big open space, so access to a traditional power outlet is unlikely. You can use a generator or hook cables to a car’s battery, but Kennedy prefers a rechargeable deep-cycle marine battery, which costs about $80 at boating supply stores. Because you can’t simply plug your projector into the battery, Kennedy says you’ll also need a power inverter with at least a 1,600-watt output. Cobra makes a well-reviewed model for $80 (solidsignal.com).
The Projector: Kennedy suggests a model with at least 2,000 lumens to fight the ambient light a projector must contend with outdoors. Both BenQ and InFocus make solid models costing about $300 (Amazon). Plug in a DVD player, laptop or iPad — make sure you have the right cables and adapters! — and you’re set.
The Sound: An FM transmitter lets viewers listen along on their car radios. Kennedy uses a Ramsey FM25B, which broadcasts sound up to 200 feet ($140, Amazon, assembly required). Speakers are an option if you want a more open-air experience.
The Screen: There’s no need to invest in anything fancy; a non-textured, semi-white wall will serve you just fine and takes pesky wind out of the equation. For his very first screening, Kennedy projected “Ghostbusters” onto a wall in a UC Berkeley parking lot.
Is This Legal? As a drive-in host, you must respect copyright. Barath Chari, an intellectual property lawyer at the D.C. office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, says: “If it’s just you and your friends watching a DVD in your backyard, that’s fine. If you invite hundreds of people and charge for it, that violates the copyright license.” Kennedy has had luck with Swank Pictures, which grants non-theatrical licenses for $100-$300.
Movies Under Moonlight
If you miss the Union Market drive-in, there are still plenty of spots to see a movie under the stars. You can catch an outdoor flick nearly every night through the end of August! Times, as well as rules about alcohol, chairs, pets, kids and weather, vary from place to place, so check websites before heading out.
Movies on the Potomac: Sundays through Sept. 1, the Plaza at National Harbor.
Screen on the Green: Mondays, July 22-Aug. 12, National Mall between Seventh and 12th streets NW. (Smithsonian)
Crystal Screen: Mondays through Aug. 26, 1851 S. Bell St., Arlington. (Crystal City)
Family Night at Sursum Corda: Tuesdays, July 23, Aug. 6 and Aug. 20, First and L streets NW.
NoMa Summer Screen: Wednesdays through Aug. 21, Loree Grand Field, Second and L streets NE.
Movies on the Square: Wednesdays through Aug. 21, 200 E. Middle Lane, Rockville. (Rockville)
Capitol Riverfront: Thursdays through Aug. 8, Canal Park, M and Second streets SE; capitolriverfront.org. (Navy Yard)
Movies Under the Stars: Fridays, July 19-Aug. 30, David R. Pinn Community Center, 10255 Zion Drive, Fairfax.
Mosaic Films in the Park: Fridays through Aug. 30, Strawberry Park, 2910 District Ave., Fairfax.
Rosslyn Outdoor Film Festival: Fridays through Aug. 30, Gateway Park, 1300 Lee Highway. (Rosslyn)
Cinema Del Ray: Third Saturdays through Aug. 17, Mount Vernon RECenter, 2017 Belle View Blvd., Alexandria.
Bethesda Outdoor Movies: Daily July 23-27, Norfolk and Auburn avenues, Bethesda.