UDITOA 2022: How Drive-In Cinemas Have Endured the Pandemic

UDITOA 2018 Convention Attendees. Photo courtesy of Survey Me

Interview with United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association President John Vincent Jr.

A popular narrative emerged during the first phase of cinema reopenings in the summer of 2020: drive-ins—purportedly unaffected by most Covid-19 restrictions—were enjoying a land-office business. The reality was significantly bleaker than the rosy picture painted in those reports. Boxoffice Pro spoke with United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA) president John Vincent Jr. ahead of the association’s first convention since the onset of the pandemic to get a sense of how Covid-19 did, in fact, affect the drive-in business—and why he believes the sector’s recovery will carry on unabated, despite the hardships of recent years.

Drive-ins led the reopening process for cinemas in the United States in 2020, and although there were many headlines heralding a renaissance for the sector, the reality of the situation was not quite as positive as it was made out to be. What was the overall impact of the pandemic on the drive-in business in 2020?

We were happy to be open and provide the public with a much-needed escape during the very early post-quarantine timeframe. That being said, a lot of what the public might perceive as a silver lining for drive-ins in the pandemic was negated by a lot of factors. We had to make sure we had social distancing in our lots [Vincent is also president of Wellfleet Drive-In and Cinemas on Cape Cod, Mass.]. Many of us, including myself, had to go to half capacity. By the time you’re done with half capacity, given the way the rows of parking work, it really was 40 percent capacity. Many drive-ins really only have one day a week, in the summer, to make money: Saturday night.

The other half of the coin is, just like our indoor counterparts, we make a lot of our money on concessions. We had to implement new procedures and policies to get food delivered to customers. My theater was historically cafeteria style: people would walk through one of three lanes and there would be a lot of impulse buying going on. They didn’t have to pre-order the food; they could just pick it up and walk out after visiting the cashier. We had to transition completely into that McDonald’s style where you go up, place your order, and wait for it to be delivered to you. It prevented us from being able to handle crowds very well, because the line would back up pretty profusely, especially with six-foot distancing. Our concession sales were down dramatically, dramatically. So no, 2020 was not one of my drive-in’s best years whatsoever. But I do want to emphasize that operators like myself were just ecstatic to be able to provide an outlet for the public that had very little out-of-home entertainment options at the time.

2021 was a recovery year for the cinema industry at large. How did drive-ins fare during this period?

Well, one thing we’ve learned in the drive-in industry from the pandemic is that Hollywood is not going to release their blockbuster movies just for drive-ins. We learned that in 2020, and we knew it coming into 2021, when the entire industry was not up to the levels where studios would like us to be in terms of attendance, because of the lingering Covid concerns. A lot of the product was delayed and films that were released day-and-date with some of the streaming services also hurt our business. 2021, for my theater in particular, wasn’t one for the record books either. In fact, honestly, it was one of the worst years we’ve had in the last two decades.

Are you concerned about any long-lasting effects the pandemics may have on drive-ins?

We’re happy to be here and provide valuable out-of-home entertainment. We look forward to the many years to come. You’re not going to see a big reduction in the drive-in theater count. We really need a robust theatrical business, including all the indoor theaters, from the largest chains down to the smallest single-screen hometown theaters, to be up, running, and at their best in order for the entire industry to thrive. We’re very thankful our indoor counterparts were able to receive funds from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), which really did save our hometown theaters. If it wasn’t for that and the work of the National Association of Theatre Owners we’d be in a very different place.

You mention the SVOG funds. Drive-ins were excluded from that program, were they not?

That’scorrect. I will add an asterisk to that though, in that it wasn’t a poison pill like the policy that stated if you’re a publicly traded company, you’re not eligible for SVOG, period. While drive-ins, in and of themselves, were not eligible, many indoor cinemas were, of course, eligible. We did have some drive-ins, near major cities, that did tend to do OK in the pandemic. But many, especially as you get into the rural areas, did not. But we did benefit from other government programs outside of SVOG, like the Payroll Protection Program. That definitely helped some drive-ins; it wasn’t like we were without any support whatsoever.

Overall, we were happy to be open and serve customers, provide an outlet, and keep the pulse of the theatrical business going during the hardest months of the pandemic. There were a couple of times in 2020 when drive-ins took over the list of the 10 highest-grossing theaters in the country, but it was nothing like the narrative that was out there that drive-ins were doing fantastic and going through this resurgence. I’ve been in this business for 33 years, and drive-ins truly saw that resurgence in the early ’90s, when we started to get mainstream product again. There is a whole host of issues why drive-ins will never have the same screen count we had in the 1950s: land value, seasonality, I’m not going to go down the line and mention all of them. But the drive-ins that are left, they’re here to stay.

What types of movies have worked best at drive-in theaters during the pandemic?

For your three-, four-, or five-screen drive-ins, they can take pretty much everything. From the single-screen perspective, you really need to attract the widest-possible audience to make it work. Jungle Cruise and Free Guy, in August of last year, really helped carry the weight, not only at the drive-ins but at indoor theaters as well. Family movies draw the widest attraction—something adults can appreciate and all the way down to five-, seven-year-olds. There are outliers that do really well, horror movies and the like, but at most drive-ins, it’s the family movies that draw the widest attraction: movies watchable by the vast majority of audiences.

Aside from that, we continue to perform well with so-called “retro” movies. We wish more of them were out of the vault and available to program. Most drive-ins do quite well with classics such as Dirty Dancing, Grease, Jaws, The Goonies, Gremlins. You can’t go wrong with those—but you can’t play them all summer, either. They’re good to program once or twice a season. We do quite well with those older movies that Generation X saw growing up; now the millennials are responding to some ’90s titles.

One of those new releases you mentioned was available day-and-date on PVOD. Did that have any impact on attendance?

Absolutely. Of the two new releases I mentioned, we did see a more precipitous drop in the one that was available on PVOD week to week than the one that wasn’t. Without PVOD, they definitely last longer. I think that benefits the entire industry, not only theaters, to have that length in theaters.

Last summer, you had some competition from drive-ins that were outside the exhibition business. City parks, big box stores that put pop-up drive-ins on their parking lot—companies that have no business in exhibition that came in to compete against authentic drive-ins. That led you to open a website where moviegoers could find an authentic drive-in nationwide. How is that project going?

We launched AuthenticDriveIns.com and it espouses the assets that we consider [necessary for] an authentic drive-in. Primarily, was it built to be a drive-in? We also take into consideration some technical features, like having a large, permanently constructed screen and DCI-compliant equipment for Hollywood first-run movies that meet the proper brightness and color controls. The right sound. A fixed concession building, possibly a playground. And a lot of other smaller things that, on the whole, make up the authentic drive-in experience, versus being in a parking lot with a screen thrown up in some manner. We think that the public understands the difference. The website is a great way to find your local drive-in. If you’re not familiar where they are, there’s a geographical search you can do on it, and you’ll find the local UDITOA drive-in near you.

What really irks us as an industry is the availability of product. There are certain movies that are in the vault for real theaters, indoor or outdoor, that we don’t have access to. A lot of these temporary venues had access to that repertory product, including in 2020, that we were forbidden from playing. That is particularly troubling to our industry—that for a variety of reasons, we’re not allowed to play some of these retro movies while these pop-up venues are allowed to play them. Aside from that, I think the public does appreciate the authentic drive-in experience and they will seek it out. I encourage everyone to seek out an authentic drive-in experience, if you haven’t been. We know there are a lot of areas in the United States that don’t have one within a drivable distance, but if you have the opportunity, please visit your local drive-in. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and love the experience.

This is the off-season for drive-ins, which coincidentally overlaps with the Major League Baseball season. Instead of the MLB’s winter meetings, you have your annual UDITOA convention in January. What do you have lined up for this year’s event?

We’re eager to get back to meeting in person. We will be at the Grand Orlando Resort, soon to be Delta by Marriott, in Kissimmee [Florida]. It’s a perfect facility for us. just the right size, where we have the entire convention facilities and we have some flexibility in going back and forth between rooms, versus being in a facility that’s too small or a facility that’s so big that you’re one of many conventions there.

This year, we’re going to focus on getting together, the social side of things. It’s going to be similar in spirit to CinemaCon last August, where we’re not going to worry about a tentpole event, speakers, or anything like that. We just want to get together, enjoy each other’s company, and catch up. Many of us have not seen each other in two years.

We are going to have a panel discussion on lessons learned over the last two years. A lot of us got forced out of our comfort zone. For example, although I’ve had a point of sale at my indoor cinemas since 1986, several of us didn’t have that coming into 2019. We were always worried: How do we deal with selling advance tickets? What do we do with possible sellout nights in fishing out the people coming in who bought advance tickets? We had never intended on going to advance tickets in my drive-in. Eventually, we knew we were going to have to go to a credit card system at the box office, but Covid accelerated that.

One of the lessons we learned is that selling advance tickets at the drive-in is a very good thing on so many levels. It gives us a serious indicator of how busy the night’s going to be. You can plan to staff accordingly by calling in extra people at four or five o’clock, when we didn’t have that intelligence before. That’s the type of information we’re going to exchange with each other to learn and help us collectively improve our business. That’s always been a big component of the drive-in industry. We’re very forthright, sharing ideas on how to do our operations and make more money.

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