Is the golden age of drive-in cinemas coming to Hungary?

Published: 11 June 2020

The new era of cautiousness after the pandemic is creating the custom of watching films from behind the windshield in Budapest, too. In the past, occasional screenings were typically only organised at holiday resorts in Hungary, yet the fact that this year the National Media and Infocommunications Authority has already received licence applications to this date amounting to the total number of such requests received last year is a sure sign of change.

One of the possible new cultural developments of the post-coronavirus pandemic is the spread of domestic drive-in cinemas. In the past, occasional screenings were typically only organised at the most popular holiday summer resorts in Hungary. However, in the new culture of distancing and contactless solutions, the number of locations planning to host screenings throughout the entire summer season, rather than for just a few weekends, is growing – at least according to the licence applications received by the National Media and Infocommunications Authority. Whilst in 2019, the Authority only received a single radio licence application from Budapest and 13 requests from rural locations, this year, five such applications for Budapest and 12 for the countryside have already been issued, while two further requests are still under way.

As the audio track of the screenings are played through the hi-fi systems of cars, every drive-in cinema requires an FM radio frequency to broadcast on, therefore every drive-in cinema screening must be approved by the NMHH, which is responsible for the allocation of radio frequencies. Licence applications can be submitted by anyone through the application form that can be downloaded from the NMHH website while the completed form can be forwarded to the Authority via post, fax or through the NMHH electronic data gateway. (Personal customer service is still suspended.)

The licensing itself is free of charge, yet operators of functional drive-in cinemas must pay a frequency usage fee. The amount of the fee is regulated by an NMHH decree, pursuant to which the NMHH calculates the precise fee, based on the height of the radio antenna and the radiated power. As drive-in cinemas use antennas with a smaller coverage area that are generally lower than 10 meters in height and operate with a performance of approximately 1 watt, the final amount is most often less than HUF 1,000. (In the case of unique applications for larger coverage areas, for example, for the procession on 20 August or the broadcasting frequencies used to service the Formula 1 race, the same fee is approximately ten times the amount than that of smaller areas.) It’s also worth keeping in mind that in the case of radio licences, the frequencies themselves are designated by the Authority. The reason for this is that experts must also ensure that the frequencies allocated according to international agreements and future developments are kept clear. The advantage of a drive-in cinema is that due to the limited range, the same frequency can be used within Budapest without interference in districts further apart from one another.

This may be necessary as, even though there is no significant increase in numbers, the distribution is rather telling: drive-in cinemas may not only become a place to spend an evening at after a day at the beach, but could also become a part of everyday life in the capital city. Additionally, as opposed to trends pointing into the direction of applications particularly for ad hoc screenings, this year, six cinemas are planning on operating over the weekends for months on end. Even some of the sites which have previously received licences have increased their operations from two to three screenings per week and an increasing number of inquiries have been received concerning the conditions for establishing new drive-in cinemas.

Consequently, it seems that the format which has previously been considered a novelty in Hungary may take root as this unique, hybrid solution provides the possibility of going out and sharing a community experience while staying in a safe, enclosed space. This spring, ticket sales for open-air screenings viewed from passenger cars and listened to over car radios - the golden age of which was in the USA in the fifties and sixties - have gained new momentum, although apart from the United States, this growth was particularly noteworthy in countries where the format had already been established, including Germany and South Korea.