How Major Theater Chains Are Using Drive-Ins as a Transitional Step to Reopening

Image Courtesy of Showcase Cinemas

On May 30, Showcase Cinemas opened a “pop-up” drive-in theater at their Patriot Place location in Foxborough, Massachusetts with a screening of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sold-out event— which doubled as a fundraiser for the local Foxboro Food Pantry—amounted to a full-circle moment for the exhibitor, which was one of the first chains to embrace the drive-in concept beginning in the late 1930s.

“It’s interesting that Showcase is starting out with a drive-in as part of our reopening, because it’s part of our DNA and our history,” says Mark Malinowski, Showcase’s vice president of global marketing. In addition to establishing one of the country’s first drive-ins—the now-defunct Sunrise Drive-In on Long Island, which opened in 1938 with a screening of the Jimmy Durante musical Start Cheering —several of its current hard top locations, including Legacy Place in Dedham, MA and the Cinema de Lux in Revere, were originally launched as drive-in venues.

The current resurgence of the drive-in format is a phenomenon that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago. But with the coronavirus continuing to circulate widely in the U.S. more than three months into the pandemic and the majority of hard top theaters remaining shuttered, drive-ins remain the only moviegoing option in many areas of the country. That reality is about to change, however—and for major chains now prepping for a reopening of their indoor locations for the first time since mid-March, “pop up” drive-ins are being viewed as a transitional step, allowing them to test out safety protocols before top-tier studio releases including Mulan (July 24), Tenet (July 31), and Bill & Ted Face the Music (August 14) are unleashed in theaters.

Marcus Theatres has been dabbling in the “parking lot cinema” concept even more extensively than Showcase. The country’s fourth-largest exhibitor currently operates pop-up drive-ins at five locations: Elgin in Illinois, Majestic of Brookfield and South Shore in Wisconsin, Pickerington in Ohio, and Twin Creek in Nebraska. Marcus CEO and president (and current NATO vice chairman) Rolando Rodriguez says that one of the first of these to open, Twin Creek in the town of Bellevue, saw sellouts in its first ten days of operation—a turnout he believes speaks to a “pent up” demand from moviegoers who have been barred from entering their local multiplexes for months. “I think people are ready to go back to some level of normalcy,” he says. “And I feel confident that we’re going to be providing that as an industry.”

When asked to list some of the challenges of operating these pop-up locations—each of which took roughly a week to set up—Rodriguez employed the more optimistic phrase “key learnings” to discuss the inevitable logistical hurdles that came with the process. Among them: Dealing with the “ingress and egress” of vehicles into and out of the parking lot; ensuring  all cars are parked 15 minutes before showtime to avoid disturbances from latecomers; and effectively educating guests on how to pre-order tickets and concessions online.

More importantly for Rodriguez, the pop-ups have given Marcus Theatres the opportunity to test out many of the health and safety protocols the company has been developing over the last several months. “[We want] to make sure that when we reopen our regular theaters, a lot of these plans that we’ve been working on will be not only good plans, but executable plans,” he says. Though there are certain components of the new guidelines that can only be tested indoors, a number of procedures—including the use of masks, social distancing markers, placement of sanitation stations and the concessions pre-ordering system—have been put into practice at the drive-ins, allowing the company to conduct a trial run before it executes a full-scale reopening.

Showcase, too, used its single pop-up drive-in as a run through for the company’s “Be Showcase Safe” initiative, which includes a new ticketing and concessions pre-order function on their website and app to facilitate no-contact payments. “This was our first time testing it out, kicking the tires on it,” says Malinowski, “and it worked really well.”

Large chains are also testing health and safety protocols at traditional drive-ins. B&B Theatres, which operates drive-in theaters in the towns of Moberly and Independence in Missouri, has put social distancing measures in place at its two outdoor locations, eliminated cash transactions and reduced contact between guests and employees at the box office and concession areas. Malco Theatres has employed similar measures at its Summer Drive-In theater in Memphis, including limiting guest capacity to 50%.

Representatives for Marcus, Malco, B&B, and Showcase all claim that attendance has been strong at both their pop-up and traditional drive-ins, though just how eager moviegoers are to return to hard top locations—even once brand-new blockbuster titles begin populating multiplexes—remains an open question. Some people we spoke to pushed back on the idea that audiences will require much of an incentive to return at all.

“I don’t think it is a matter of easing movie fans back into coming to the movies,” Malco Theatres’ senior vice president of film & marketing Jeff Kaufman told Boxoffice Pro via email. “It is obvious that the high degree of pent up demand for the theatrical experience and need to get out of the house has exploded, resulting in huge drive-in attendance. People still love movies, and we are grateful they are putting their money where their fandom is.”

Those sentiments were echoed by B&B Theatres director of publicity Paul Farnsworth, who added, “While our drive-in operations did provide us the means of presenting the public with some of our revised cleaning and social distancing protocols, I’m not sure that our guests will need an ‘easing back in’ outside of the parameters established by local and regional health authorities. In other words, we feel and hope that our guests will come back to cinemas once cinemas are reopened and won’t require much in the way of re-acclimation.”

Rodriguez was more measured when asked whether drive-ins are a way of mitigating anxieties for guests who may be nervous about returning to indoor locations—not to mention reiterating the value of moviegoing for those who have been relegated to watching films at home for the past several months.

“Think about this—our industry has been pretty much shut down now for almost three months,” he says. “So for us, it was an important aspect to keep connected with our guests and the importance and the fun of moviegoing and entertainment value associated with it.” To accommodate guests who aren’t yet comfortable watching movies in an indoor theater, he adds, the company is considering keeping its pop-up drive-ins operational even once its hard top locations open for business.

Of course, reopening plans for exhibitors across the country are highly dependent upon major studios providing new content—and with only a few high-profile films slated for release over the next several months, all eyes are on Disney (Mulan), Warner Bros. (Tenet) and others to follow through on those plans. All exhibitor representatives interviewed for this story expressed confidence that the studios will keep their remaining summer releases on the calendar, but if coronavirus cases begin to spike in a substantial way—a phenomenon already being observed in states like Arizona, Texas and Florida—reopening plans could be further delayed in some areas.

“Let’s hope to God that that does not happen—not just for the sake of our industry but the sake of our country,” said Rodriguez, who didn’t rule out the possibility of opening more pop-up drive-in locations if indoor reopening plans are pushed back due to a surge in cases in some communities. And if it does? “Obviously, there are different ways to provide that entertainment experience during difficult times,” Rodriguez added. “What you’ve seen is we can be creative, and certainly adapt to whatever those situations might become.”

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