Drive-in theatres are jammed with moviegoers escaping lockdown

Thomas Black

BLOOMBERG – Daniel Fuller inflated a camping mattress, tossed it into the back of his pickup and settled in with his wife to watch Trolls World Tour at the Coyote Drive-In in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Friday night show was the first time the 37-year-old had been to a drive-in movie since he was a kid. The couple isn’t ready to face the risk of indoor theatres, and the Coyote was one of the few options to get out of the house and break the lockdown routine. So they drove 30 miles to see the animated tale of mythological creatures uniting musical tribes, which played out against the glowing backdrop of Fort Worth’s night skyline.

“This is probably our first date night since before the pandemic started in February,” said Fuller, who works at the restaurant chain Chili’s Grill. “It’s a fun experience. It’s different.”

In recent decades, drive-in theatres have existed mainly as an entertainment novelty – quirky throwbacks to a bygone era. Now virus-wary movie fans avoid crowding indoors where they face a higher risk of catching covid-19.

Never since their 1950s heyday have drive-in theatres seemed more attractive.

A screen reminds Ocala Drive-In Theater moviegoers to stay safe. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

“You’re safe at a drive-in,” said John Watzke, owner of the Ocala Drive-In Theater 80 miles north of Orlando, Florida. If at least one good thing can come out of the deadly pandemic gripping the nation, he said, it might just be the popular rebirth of this particular piece of Americana.

More than 300 drive-in theatres – basically parking lots equipped with a giant outdoor movie screen – are currently in business across the US, down from about 4,000 in 1958. With lockdowns beginning to ease across the nation this month, the drive-ins are drawing a whole new corps of customers from the pandemic generation.

Open-air movies were among the first businesses cleared for opening by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Websites for the theatres promote their outdoor advantage, while stipulating new rules such as wearing masks if you leave your car, tickets that reserve two spaces instead of one, and new apps for ordering concessions from
your car.

Cars formed a long line for the May 5 opening of Donna Saunders’s Tiffin Drive-In Theater in Ohio.

“Everyone that drove up said, ‘We are so happy to get out of our house and have something fun to do,’ ” said Saunders, who bought the outdoor theatre in 2011. “I assume there were smiling faces behind those masks they were wearing – because we were all wearing masks – but everybody seemed to be in a jolly mood.”

In Florida, Watzke has been turning away customers on weekends. Even with every-other-space parking cutting capacity in half, he deemed it an “exceptional night” for this time of year.

Watzke made some other adjustments for the pandemic, fencing in a 70-foot walkway at the concession stand and laying light strips to mark six-foot intervals where customers should stand. He’s using more to-go packaging and hired extra workers to deliver food to customers who prefer to order over the Internet.

For now, Watzke doesn’t want to pass along those extra costs to customers, though they trim his profit margin by about 20 per cent.

Another obstacle is the lack of new releases, which studios are withholding until indoor theatres are open. Watzke is showing a mix of older movies, such as Wonder Woman, and independent films, including IFC’s How to Build a Girl and The Wretched. A few weekends ago, he screened Harry Potter movies.

“I don’t think people care as much about what they’re coming to see,’’ he said. “They just want to get out of their house.’’

All three screens at the Coyote Drive-In were sold out on Friday night as Texans seized the chance to get out of their homes. Maribel Rodriguez, 45, loaded up her three kids to see Trolls World Tour after spending weeks confined to their house. She wasn’t sure how her children would react, but she thinks the drive-in made some new fans.

“I think we will come out more often,” she said. “It brings us all together as a family.”

The renaissance for drive-ins should last at least through the summer, said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Paramount, a unit of ViacomCBS Inc. The outdoor venues will have almost a monopoly on moviegoing at least through June, as most indoor theatres remain closed and customers seek alternatives to closed spaces.

“I think people are going to be very comfortable with outdoor, out-of-home entertainment,” Aronson said.

Proprietors are hoping their new customers will stay loyal even after virus risks ease.