As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the entertainment industry, bands and artists have begun exploring alternative performance platforms while live music venues remain shuttered. Live streaming continues to be a popular draw for many acts, but despite the direct-to-consumer draw of enjoying a concert at home, music fans are keen to recognize the value of a communal event. It’s a frustration shared by moviegoers worldwide during the pandemic: an excess of content available to watch from the couch, but a distinctly different experience from buying a ticket and experiencing something new with an audience. With summer tours and music festivals facing indefinite delays, drive-in cinemas have emerged as one of the few communal experiences that can adhere to social distancing guidelines. In the Covid-19 era, drive-in cinemas are also one of the few venues available for music acts to stage events.
“We’re not able to get any new movies, and a lot of people are angry about that, but at the same time it’s out of our control,” says Preston Brown, owner of Hound’s Drive-In in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. “But it also comes to our benefit. People want to get out of the house. They just want something to do.”
Drive-Ins have relied on a stream of genre releases from distributors like IFC Films and a host of repertory titles from some major studios to tide them over until first run films return to screens. In June, they added concert movies to their rotation with the roll-out of a new Garth Brooks concert at over 300 drive-in screens nationwide. The event proved to be a big success at participating theaters, registering over 350 thousand admissions according to distributor Encore Live.
Participating exhibitors across the country reported sell-outs of the event, priced at $100 per vehicle––a significantly higher ticket price than the usual drive-in fare. “With a drive-in, the bulk of your clients come from a certain radius,” says Tim Robertson, a co-owner of two North Carolina drive-ins who booked the Garth Brooks concert. “When you do something like a big concert…you’re able to reach [people] from a larger radius. Our hope with this is that we get people to realize there’s a drive-in, and it’s driving distance [from them].”
“I had fireworks and a movie that night,” says Brown, from the Hounds Drive-In, who also booked the show. “A company came in, and we shot off fireworks after the Garth Brooks concert. It was like a 15-minute video that’s on each screen that’s choreographed with the fireworks. We went from there to Smokey and the Bandit…we had about 300 cars leave, so it ended up being about 500 at the end of the night that stayed all the way through. And that’s the goal: to keep them there as late as you can, because guess what? They get hungry, and they get thirsty, and they keep eating.”
Concerts have been one of the fastest growing categories in event cinema in recent years. U.S. distributors have found notable success activating bands’ and artists’ followings with live and encore concerts in either one-night only or special engagement screenings at cinemas. K-Pop sensation BTS, for example, has already released three concert movies through event cinema distributors worldwide. Its latest concert film, Bring the Soul: The Movie, grossed over $24.3 million worldwide across 112 territories. The Korean boy band will return to screens beginning on September 10 with their fourth cinema concert, Break the Silence: The Movie, on September 10 at over 70 territories through distributor Trafalgar Releasing. The film will hit an additional 40 markets, including the United States, on September 24.
At drive-ins, however, the availability of concerts has become a newfound concern for exhibitors that signed an exclusivity agreement with Encore Live, the company that launched the Garth Brooks show. A new player to exhibition, Encore Live used its contacts in the live music industry to offer music artists venues in the U.S. drive-in market. In doing so, it gave exhibitors a choice in booking their content––incentivizing the drive-ins who elected to make Encore Live their exclusive provider of concert movies. At the time, the company did not have an announced slate of concert content available for the length of the proposed exclusivity period. Although common among live music venues, the practice is unusual in exhibition circles––especially after the passing of the Paramount Decrees in 1948. While the Decrees recently expired, the block booking and state-specific blind bidding statutes they inspired remain in effect for a transition period of two years.
“Out of the gate, we needed to understand who was really eager to get behind this world class entertainment, but we also didn’t want to exclude anybody,” explains Encore Live founder Walter Kinzie. “We understand that there will be some shows that work really well in some places and other shows that don’t…theater owners voluntarily got to decide if they want to take this on a show-by-show basis or agree to be exclusive and only allow Encore Live to bring them this broadcast-quality entertainment. They were incentivized accordingly to do so, and while we had a handful of theaters that elected to just go show-by-show, the vast majority of theaters appreciated the quality of entertainment and production we were bringing them, combined with the incentive that we put in place, should they like to go exclusive.”
Several drive-in exhibitors contacted by Boxoffice Pro cited the exclusivity clause as the primary reason to not sign with Encore Live, despite being given the option to book the same shows at a lower per-ticket share under non-exclusive terms.
“They really tried to corner this [market]. And I think they did a pretty good job of it, because I think they got 250 of the 300 changed drive-ins to do this. Now we’ve all signed these exclusivity contracts, we’re a little bit scared,” said a drive-in owner who signed an exclusivity contract with Encore Live and asked to go unnamed in this story. “I’ve got a copy of the contract that I have to go back and reread…I want to find out what happens if I decide I want to play a concert from somebody else.”
Most of the exhibitors Boxoffice Pro reached out to for this story reported an overall positive experience working with Encore Live. The company sends out a team of its own staff attendants to help drive-ins with operational details around the event: from directing traffic to enforcing social distancing measures during the show. Ticketing for the events is completely handled by TicketMaster, an established brand for live venues and a relative newcomer to selling movie tickets.
Following their success with June’s Garth Brooks show, Encore Live reported a lower turnout of around 150 thousand admissions for its July concert headlined by Blake Shelton and featuring Gwen Stefani and Trace Adkins. The company recently announced its next concert, headlined by the rock band Metallica, on August 29.
While the company’s full slate of concerts beyond August still hasn’t been announced, Kinzie notes they will be strategically scheduled to avoid overlapping with any new Hollywood releases once they become available. “We’re scheduling fluidly, depending on what’s happening out of Hollywood and what’s available,” he says. “We want to be good partners and I think when you look at our model and talk to theater owners, it’s clear that we always intended to take a backseat to Hollywood…we built a model around the great movies coming out of Hollywood so that when there are gaps in the schedule, we would come in to fill those gaps.”
As the pandemic continues ravaging throughout the country, strict social distancing and capacity restrictions will likely keep live music venues sidelined for the foreseeable future. Despite this challenge, event cinema distributors have confirmed they will continue licensing concert movies and making them available to exhibitors––both at traditional and drive-in locations––through the coming months. For audiences looking for a concert fix, they’ll have a diversity of venues to choose from as U.S. cinemas begin a nationwide reopening effort later this month.