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Drive-in movies: A pastime fights for its future amid COVID-19, new competition

SNL Image

The Dixie Twin Drive-In in Dayton, Ohio, is one of 322 operating drive-ins in the U.S. as of January 2020.
Source: Carload.com

Michael Kilgore remembers drive-ins.

He remembers Kansas City's Boulevard Drive-In Theatre, a summer screening of "Brewster's Millions" in 1985 and a lovely date with a woman he would marry 15 months later. He remembers in 1980 seeing "The Gong Show Movie" at the Leawood Drive-In and exploding out of the car to throw the drive-in speaker on the ground because the movie was so bad. He remembers The Alamo, or just down the street from The Alamo, where San Antonio's white Spanish-style colonial mission churches stretch out in the night, and moviegoers laughed together at the Mission Drive-In concession building between screenings.

Kilgore remembers drive-ins, and enthusiastically so. He maintains the Carload blog on the topic, and he is about to publish his second book. But along with many things Americans used to take for granted, the simple pastime has taken a difficult, chaotic turn amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Before Aug. 12, he had not published a Carload blog post since November 2019, and he has not updated one of very few lists of active U.S. drive-ins since January.

"What's there is correct as of January 2020, but what does an accurate list look like today? What does it mean when an established drive-in can't open because of state or local mandates?" Kilgore wrote in his Aug. 12 post. "When a pop-up opens in an indoor theater parking lot, is that really a new drive-in? ... 2020 has been a very strange year, and its effect on drive-ins has also been very strange."

The country was home to 322 operating drive-ins as of January, according to Kilgore's count.

As to what the figure would be now, Kilgore said in an interview, "It's complicated."

From big-box to big screens

The business of counting drive-ins got even more complicated when Walmart Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. entered the fray.

Walmart installed big screens at 160 of its parking lots across the country for 320 movie showings between Aug. 14 and Oct. 21. The big-box retailer partnered with Tribeca Film Festival and screenings are "free to Walmart customers," according to a press release.

Walmart did not respond to request for comment by press time.

"Nothing beats a movie at a real drive-in..." — John Vincent Jr., president of the trade group United Drive-In Theatre Owners' Association

That follows an Amazon attempt at in-car exhibition. The e-commerce giant between July 1 and Aug. 26 partnered with Outlier Society, actor Michael B. Jordan's production company, to run a summer drive-in series. It is being hosted at various drive-ins across the country, and it is free for the COVID-rattled communities.

"It's the safest way to see movies this summer," Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said in an interview.

The entry of Walmart and Amazon into the mix marks a sort of reversal from a trend in the early 2000s that that saw corporations and chain owners sell off drive-in properties. Today the typical drive-in is family-owned, often operated by the children of the original owners.

"Drive and survive"

It is not surprising that Walmart launched the drive-in series given the company's ample parking lot space and the opportunity to sell concessions, Bock said, but he is surprised that the country's big indoor theater operators, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Cinemark Holdings Inc., did not do the same. Instead, those companies watched revenue nearly flatline in the second quarter as essentially all their properties were forced to close.

"There are a lot of movie theaters that have big parking lots, and this could have been them," he said.

However, even if movies this summer are safest viewed from inside a vehicle, the truth is, those businesses are just as beleaguered as any other on Main Street. Contrary to headlines suggesting that drive-ins are enjoying a boom through the pandemic period, the business depends on normal socialization, stable employment, and a general sense of safety and levity in the community.

SNL Image
The Teepee Drive-In outside of Tulsa, Okla., shuttered two decades ago.
Source: Carload.com

Drive-ins are generally regulated as a nonessential business under social distancing guidelines, enduring forced closures and, where open, required to run at fractional attendance. Their concession buildings, the profit generators of the property, are typically closed under mandate.

"I'm losing half my revenue this summer," said John Vincent Jr., who runs the Wellfleet Drive-In in Cape Cod, Mass.

Vincent's complex includes an indoor theater, a mini-golf course and other venue-based entertainment options. His drive-in is thankfully generating some sales while his other businesses are closed, he said, but social distancing guidelines have it operating at less than half capacity.

Adding insult to injury, some local drive-in operators are concerned that pop-ups like those launched by Walmart are attracting customers away from longstanding venues, even if Vincent has not noted a decline in sales from the two or three pop-ups that operate in his Cape Cod community. He declined to comment on Walmart specifically.

"Nothing beats a movie at a real drive-in that has the proper ramps and has the huge screen," said Vincent, the president of the trade group United Drive-In Theatre Owners' Association. "Those will be the ones that drive and survive."

Stranded at the drive-in

The cost of launching an operation of the scale Vincent operates is daunting, Bock said. He doubts a startup or even a company like Walmart would make the investment to fully enter the drive-in business without some very compelling consumer demand.

"It's being overplayed in the media as a boom, a resurgence," Vincent said of the summer box office hype. "The resurgence for my drive-in started in the 90s."

Vincent saw his worst year for the Wellfleet in 1987, he said, and "Jurassic Park's" 1993 debut turned the business around for drive-ins in general. The industry has seen slow, steady growth since then.

Before the pandemic, most drive-ins across the U.S. were at or near capacity over weekends with nice weather, Kilgore said.

Granted, Kilgore's list of active businesses has slowly declined over the past decade. Aging operators would die, and the property would decay on the outskirts of town. The growth in land values and property taxes cut into narrow profits and drove many landlords to sell the real estate.

Still, Kilgore defends the overall business model. "I would question whether it's a declining business," he said.

After the pandemic, it is anyone's guess. While reports of a pandemic boom are overplayed, drive-ins are seeing new clientele testing the product for the first time. The best hope is the pandemic period grooms a new generation of driver-in customers and supports more growth once business returns to normal.

"Where does society stand?" Vincent said. "That's hard to say until we get there. ... [For now], drive-ins are just happy to be open."