Volvo Parks Brits at the Drive-in Movie

'Starlite' Promo Allows Locals to Soak Up American Car Culture

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LONDON ( -- The British have never had the weather, the space or the car culture necessary for drive-in movies. But they've all seen "Grease," and the romance of the drive-in is firmly implanted in the popular psyche.

Enter Damian Barr, journalist and cultural entrepreneur, who, with the help of Volvo, has invented the Starlite Urban Drive-In, in which would-be Sandy Olssons and Danny Zukos can watch films while settled comfortably in one of a range of shiny new Volvos in East London.

The cars are pre-parked, so you don't even need a drivers' license, and the $40 ticket buys you a drink and some popcorn as well as a seat. The film's soundtrack is broadcast through the car's radio while waitresses on roller skates take food and drink orders.

Just like real American drive-ins, there is plenty of food available to make a mess of those gleaming new Volvos. The nearby Brickhouse restaurant has produced a special Starlite menu of burgers, meatloaf and sweet potato pie, followed by ice cream sundaes or chocolate brownies and cream. And there are no rules against heavy petting.

Two initial screenings (of "Grease" and "Dirty Dancing") sold out online in 30 seconds. The location is an outdoor patch of land owned by The Truman Brewery -- a cool venue which can accommodate only 25 cars at a time -- and due to Starlite's success, more dates are lined up for the fall with a European tour planned for next summer.

"The 'Volvo for life' tagline is about enriching people's lives and building cars for a better life, so the opportunity seemed to be one that fit well with our brand," said a Volvo spokeswoman in an e-mail. "It also gave us a fun and unique opportunity to reach a younger audience that may not have been exposed to the Volvo brand before. We've been delighted with the success of the Starlite Urban drive-in."

Mr. Barr, a Scot, developed his taste for drive-ins while studying in Texas, and is a big fan of the 1950s aesthetic. He spoke to a number of car companies, but found that only Volvo was the right fit. "We wanted a partner, not a sponsor who just wanted to slap a big logo on everything. Volvo were very hands-off and genuinely wanted us to be creative," he said.

An initial screening of 'Dirty Dancing' sold out online in 30 seconds.
An initial screening of 'Dirty Dancing' sold out online in 30 seconds.
And creative they were. A party was held the night before the screenings started, at which 400 people witnessed hula-hoop artists descending from a roof to the tune of the "Grease" song, "Beauty School Drop-Out." "The party was amazing. Everyone was honking horns and dancing on the car roofs," Mr. Barr said. "They were really having fun with the cars and it's created massive interest." Meanwhile, the big screen showed a film about the history of the drive-in movie, specially created by Volvo.

Already major studios have approached Mr. Barr, asking him to show film premieres, while additional sponsors, including alcohol, beauty and food brands, want to get involved with the next phase of the project.

But Mr. Barr intends to remain loyal to Volvo. "They have a European presence and we have a good relationship which we're keen to leverage across different territories," he said. Good thing, too, as drinking and driving don't mix.

Volvo, owned until now by Ford Motor Co., is in the process of being sold to Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. for $1.8 billion. The Volvo sale is expected to close in the next couple of months (Ford bought Volvo in 1999 for $6.45 billion).

Ford is also getting in on the film tie-up by sponsoring a series of outdoor film screenings at 11 different U.K. stately homes this summer, as part of its launch campaign for the new Galaxy model. In a deal brokered by media agency Mindshare, local radio stations are promoting the screenings, while Ford branding and cars will feature prominently at each event.

The U.K. is finding inspiration for pop-up entertainment ideas this summer from Paris as well as from the U.S. Super-chic Parisian boutique Colette, which often works closely with marketers to either sell their products first in France or create versions exclusive to Colette, is doing a temporary "swap shop" with communications agency KesselsKramer. Colette has taken space at the agency's London gallery to sell a range of products not normally available in the U.K., while KesselsKramer is showing some of its latest artworks and objects in the Parisian store.

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