Some Drive-Ins Experience New Life as Movie Theaters Close

Drive-in theaters have been in decline since the 1970s, with only 300 such theaters still open in the U.S. Now, with movie theaters closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of those remaining drive-ins are experiencing a bit of a renaissance. In Virginia, one 54-year old theater is open for business, with at least three of that state’s other drive-ins ready to reopen. According to United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association president John Vincent, about 150 drive-ins will reopen in the next three weeks as the shutdowns are lifted.

The Washington Post reports that, “only a fraction of drive-ins — fewer than 15 — have actually stayed open through the states’ stay-at-home orders.” But even New York governor Andrew Cuomo has supported  the idea of opening them, noting that, “you’re in the car with the same people.” New York is home to 30 drive-in theaters, most of them upstate.

Among the issues that drive-in theater owners face is getting a hold of movies since, “studios, which prefer simultaneous national rollouts, have postponed all major releases until at least mid-July.” Some are considering running older movies such as “Grease” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” while keeping costs down with single features and a barebones staff.

To impose social distancing, drive-ins plan to allow greater distance between cars and move ticketing to the Internet. The snack bar will be open, only to online orders and curbside pickup.

Jim Kopp, who owns two drive-in theaters on the East Coast noted that, “it won’t feel like a drive-in is meant to — which is a giant movie tailgate party — but people will still lie in the backs of trucks and families will be there and the dog will be there and it will feel like summer.” According to Kopp, “many drive-ins can collect $10,000 in movie and food receipts on a good night … [but] revenue-shares with studios … run at 50-60 percent of ticket sales.” The profit margins are razor thin, with projectors costing “tens of thousands of dollars” and “often bought with a long-term loan.”

Although the number of drive-ins started to decline in the 1970s, “as recently as the 1990s there were more than 900 drive-in screens.” With “high maintenance and real-estate costs,” drive-ins can’t easily compete with multiplexes. They remain popular in more working-class and rural areas, however, “where land is cheaper and the venue appeals to families seeking to pile in the car for a night of inexpensive entertainment.”

Drive-ins will now also be competing with the likes of the independent Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, which is sponsoring a pop-up drive-in in early May, using 49 of the 75 parking spaces in the lot and encouraging viewers to order food from nearby restaurants.

“This is a great alternative form of distribution, another way for us to consume entertainment instead of staying home and watching Netflix all the time,” said Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty, who studies film distribution and exhibition. “But I think this is an intermediate phase before we can get back to what we were doing before.”

Related:
Texas Movie Theaters Reopen With Health, Temperature Checks, Variety, 5/1/20