Back to the future: are drive-in theaters the future of safe cinema trips?
Most of America’s cinemas have gone dark in the coronavirus pandemic, but attendance at the Ocala drive-in in Florida is surging.
Seven nights a week, people are pulling up in their cars at the 1948 cinema, which reopened following refurbishment in 2011, to see films such as Trolls World Tour, Back to the Future and Horror Nights.
It is one of just a handful of outdoor theaters across the country that have stayed open during the stay-at-home measures, and owner John Watzke said people are driving two or three hours to visit the cinema.
“This time of the year I normally would not sell out [of tickets] because children are in school and stuff, but I am finding now on Fridays and Saturdays I am reaching my capacity and have to turn people away.”
Watzke said he wanted to stay open because of his experiences after Hurricane Katrina, which caused devastation in 2005 , and when “anything that brought a few minutes of a normal life to us was appreciated.”
With many facing financial uncertainty and confined to their homes unable to see friends and family because of the virus, he wanted to provide an outlet.
“My thought is if you’re sitting in the house together, you can ride in a vehicle together, why can’t you watch a movie together?”
Since the outbreak he has introduced new safety measures including almost halving capacity from 460 to 250, asking employees to wear masks and gloves and moving food orders online, which are then delivered to vehicles. They also check employees’ temperatures every three hours.
“If I did not feel that the guests and my staff were perfectly safe I wouldn’t have done this,” said Watzke.
While far from its peak of the late 1950s, when the US had over 4,000, drive-ins have seen a resurgence in recent years.
Despite the easy accessibility of at-home streaming services, today there are still about 305 around the country.
Last weekend there were approximately 25 drive-ins open across the US, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), a rise of around five on the previous weekend. They expect that number to continue to grow each week.
Meanwhile, most of America’s 5,548 indoor cinemas remain closed. The National Association of Theatre Owners said depending on conditions and guidance from officials, most indoor theatres are “tentatively aiming” to open in late June or early July – in time for the release of the Christopher Nolan film Tenet.
Of those that are open, drive-ins are already seeing a boost following coronavirus, which they expect to last beyond the immediate crisis, as people seek socially distanced entertainment.
As well as showing films, drive-in owners are also preparing to fill a new role in a post-pandemic world by hosting church services, graduations, live shows and meetings.
Josh Frank, owner of Blue Starlite, a mini urban drive-in concept with two theatres in Texas, said he expects drive-ins will see a “big spike” in ticket sales in the next two to three months.
He added: “Outdoor drive-in movie experiences are going to be incredibly sought after – at least for the next year or two – even when things do start to reopen because it is simply the safest, most comfortable way of getting out to see a movie, a live show or anything.”
Tickets for his theatre in Round Rock, which is currently open, have been selling out “within minutes” and he’s been adding additional shows. He plans to reopen his Austin theatre in May.
His cinemas usually show classic movies, but he is now also showing independent arthouse films and put on a South by Southwest short film showcase after the festival was cancelled. He has also been approached about staging live comedians.
Auto Drive In, a family-run business in Greenwood, was declared “essential” after South Carolina’s stay-at-home order was put in place.
Carolyn McCutcheon said tearful parents thank them for staying open and she considers the three-screen drive-in, which was built in 1945, a “community service”.
“They decided we were an essential business because family had to have a place that they can go for entertainment. They have to be able to de-stress.”
The venue, which runs dinner and cinema nights on Fridays and Saturdays and now hosts “drive-in church” on Sundays, has installed additional safety measures. McCutcheon, who thinks more drive-ins should be allowed to open, said most people stay in their cars with the windows closed.
“You can work with the system and have it the way they want it because everyone’s so well-trained,” she said.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed sympathy for drive-in theatres, saying at a recent press conference: “Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theatre. You’re in the car with the same people.”
But under official state policy they remain non-essential and therefore currently barred from reopening.
Once they are allowed to reopen, Beth Wilson, owner of Warwick Drive-In in New York, is expecting them to have a “very good season” during which she also hopes to host school graduations.
John Stefanopoulos, of Four Brothers Drive In, also in New York, said before the cinema was forced to close for the shutdown, business was “almost double what it was the previous pre-season opening”.
John Vincent, UDITOA president and owner of Wellfleet Drive-In on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, said with their “built-in social distancing” he expects drive-ins will be among the first activities available when stay-at-home orders are lifted.
He added: “We’re eager to lead the way and it will most likely happen that drive-ins lead the recovery in terms of the theatre industry, but we are hoping that the whole industry can come up as rapidly and safely as possible.”
But he said without many of the indoor theatres, they are not going to be able to access first-run movies. “We can only go so far with retro movies. We really do need a strong, robust-as-can-be theatrical business in order to survive.”