The State of Drive-In Movie Theaters in a COVID World8 min read

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I still remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car, popcorn in hand, as I watched the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was all of five years old, but the memory of watching my fist movie at the Drive-In theater was etched into my brain. 

Fast forward thirty years. We now have state-of-the-art indoor movie theaters with amazing audio and video technologies that truly immerse you in the experience. Gone are the days of driving up to the drive-in and watching a movie from your vehicle’s roof.

Or are they?

There are still about 300 drive-in movie theaters in existence in the US. Many struggle to turn a profit as they offer up doses of nostalgia, a communal experience and low-cost entertainment in the face of slicker and better-funded indoor competitors.

But like so many other things in the world right now, Coronavirus has turned everything on its head, and the same is true for Drive-In movie theaters. The goal of indoor theaters is to fill every seat in a confined space, but with drive-ins, people watch a movie from their own car, isolated. And that’s helping drive-ins thrive once again.

The Drive-In Resurrection

 With most states lifting their stay-at-home orders and reopening non-essential businesses, indoor theaters will start operating again, but will people show up?

Meanwhile, existing drive-ins are selling out their shows and new pop up drive-ins are showing up all across the country.

What’s a Pop Up Drive-In?

It’s just what it sounds like. A full drive-in movie theater experience that just pops up in a spot with enough space for it.

Atlanta’s own historic Plaza Theater closed during the COVID-19 outbreak, but made the decision to create a pop up drive-in in their rear parking lot. 

What about concessions? I want my popcorn! 

They had that covered, too. The Plaza Theatre worked with local restaurants to provide snacks during the movies.

“The first thing we needed to figure out was how to make this experience safe for everyone and as contact-free as possible,” says Escobar. “That meant setting up advanced ticketing online, reserving spaces for each car in the parking lot, and purchasing concessions ahead of time to be delivered to people’s cars. I wanted to promote the open restaurants in the area for concessions, especially those in the same complex as the Plaza.”

How Do I Make a Pop Up Theater?

Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s also not all that difficult.

1. You need space

Enough space for cars to come in and park to watch the movie. Fields and parking lots are perfect for this. Figure out the amount of money you’re hoping to make per showing, then estimate the number of vehicles it would take to hit that number. Once you know the number of cars you’ll have, you will have an idea of the amount of space you’ll need. 

2. You need a spot to show the movie

Some places are opting for inflatable screens. Others are having temporary fixtures installed. There are a lot of options when it comes to the space to show the movie on, and we’re happy to help you find the best solution. Just call!

3. You need equipment to project the movie

You have your fancy movie screen, but now you need to actually get the movie to play on it. There are tons of options here, and some of it depends on the type of screen you went with. Most projectors will work fine, but there are options with how the media is played through the projector, the quality of the image coming out, and the distance the projector can….well, project. We’re experts in this area, so again, if you have questions, let us know.

4. You need to hear the movie

Unless you plan on really sticking with the nostalgic aspect and only showing silent films, you need a way to provide audio.

And this is where it gets tricky. 

The normal option here is using an FM transmitter to send the audio out. Some projectors will work with FM Transmittors so you just hit play and everything works. People tune their car radio to a certain frequency, and they’re able to hear the movie from their own car speakers.

Here’s the snag. Most FM Transmittors aren’t that great. Their range is usually less than 200 feet. That’s not enough to cover the entire parking lot full of cars. And to get the range extended, you need clearance from the FCC

Other Uses of a Pop Up Drive-in

While we all tend to think of Drive-Ins as a place to watch movies, people are starting to get creative with the uses of these spaces.

Weddings

Weddings have taken a huge hit during the pandemic. Most weddings have large crowds of people sitting very close together during the ceremony, then dancing together during the reception.

In a socially-distancing world, that just doesn’t work. But using a pop up drive-in space lends itself perfectly to this scenario.

The setup is very similar, but there is room for changes here. You could just make a stage for the bride and groom and have the audio feed pushed out through the FM transmitter so everyone can hear it in their cars. You can include a screen if you want a slideshow to play, or you might use the screen for closeups of the wedding couple so everyone can see it better.

Nearly all aspects of a typical wedding ceremony and reception can be performed in this space, including cake cutting and the first dance. 

Concerts

While many bands have started doing virtual concerts, using a drive-in space for a concert is a nice hybrid option.

Instead of just a screen, you can do a full stage setup, but instead of everyone crowding together to watch, they’re socially distanced in their vehicles. 

You have a few options with audio in this situation, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Sending the audio out through an FM transmitter is one option, but it’s probably not ideal – at least not as the only option. Weather permitting, a better option is to set the stage up just as you would for any concert, and have people keep their windows down. It still allows for social distancing, but with the added benefit of the live concert feel. You’ll just need to make sure loud music is allowed where you do your pop up drive-in.

Keith Urban recently held a drive-in concert, and it was a massive success. 

“I’m grateful that we have the technology to do ‘at home’ concerts,” says the country superstar, “but come on — without the audience, it’s just one looooong soundcheck.” That’s why he was thrilled to get some genuine human feedback on May 14, when he became the first major artist of the pandemic era to do a concert for fans sheltering in place in (or on) their vehicles, playing for about 200 people in 125 cars or trucks at the Stardust Drive-In Theatre in Watertown, Tenn. “The only real challenge for me was [the absence of] the energy from a mosh pit,” he says. “But the car horns, the flashing headlights — that was crazy cool.”

Urban’s show was a secret, invitation-only freebie for Vanderbilt University medical personnel. But it was also a road test of sorts for scaling up the concept of drive-in concerts, which began popping up in Europe earlier this year, from novelty one-offs to the mainstream.

Keith Urban’s glee at performing for socially distanced fans at a drive-in theater in Tennessee may soon be shared by more major artists, as a Live Nation plan to use amphitheater parking areas for shows could bring the automotive concert concept into the mainstream, using their amphitheaters’ parking lots as the space for the pop up drive-in concerts.

The sky’s the limit

Once you have you space and everything set, the sky truly is the limit with what you can do with that space.

As the year progresses, we imagine we’ll start seeing new and creative uses for once-forgotten drive-in theaters, and we’ll see a tremendous rise in the number of pop up drive-ins throughout the country.

Have an idea for a drive-in? Tell us about it in the comments. And if you’d like to discuss options to plan a pop up drive-in event, reach out to us – we’re here to help!

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