Drive-In Cure For Your Family's Stay-At-Home Blues

One group of entertainment venues has turned lemons into lemonade for thousands of moviegoers across the fruited plains.

Drive-in theater owners rode the wave of COVID restrictions to bring families back to the future and offered a respite from stay-at-home blues.

In the process they discovered grains of gold in the place of pandemic closures. So says Jim Kopp, a member of the board for the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association. Kopp has been a drive-in enthusiast for more than 60 years and owns the Family Drive-In Theater of Stephens City, Va.

“Folks are seeing it as a safe alternative to enjoy movies,” Kopp said. “They can social distance with their vehicles. It is attracting a lot of young people who have never been to the drive-in theater and parents who have not been there since high school.” 

Chances are there’s a drive-in theater no matter where your family travels this summer.

More than 300 drive-in theaters are operated in 47 states--the exceptions being Lousianna, Hawaii and Alaska.

“My parents used to take me when I was a kid,” Kopp said of his experiences in the 1950s. “They’re a lot different now. Drive-ins have gone high tech.”

All but one in Philadelphia have upgraded from reel-to-reel projectors to digital systems. As a result, picture quality has improved markedly. Digital sound broadcast to your vehicle’s FM stereo has displaced the toaster-sided boxes slung on vehicle windows.

“You’ve got some great audio coming out of that FM radio,” Kopp said, tipping his virtual hat to the 5.1 stereo systems found in most modern vehicles.

Like all businesses, drive-ins have adapted to life in the COVID-19 lane. Kopp and some of his peers implemented on-line ticket ordering.

“We can manage our budgets a lot better,” Kopp said. “We know what to expect each night. It’s so much easier for visitors since they don’t have to worry about coming into contact with any surfaces.”

The most dramatic changes occurred in concession stands. Sanitary precautions incorporate local guidelines to reduce risk of COVID spread.

Local regulations required employees to follow strict cleaning procedures and wear face masks, Kopp said. Pandemic restrictions also nudged drive-ins to adopt mobile technology inside the venue.

“Now you can order a burger and lemonade from your vehicle,” said Kopp, who estimated more than half of drive-ins support mobile apps. “You get an alert when the order is ready for pick-up. It’s convenient and safe.”

Drive-ins faced another unexpected challenge, however. Movie studios put a hold on summer releases, so theaters owners pivoted to popular classics.

The exception was a Garth Brooks concert released Saturday, June, 27. More than 300 drive-ins participated in the event, which featured the full band performing in Nashville.

"This time, I was the fan and the people were the entertainment,” Garth Brooks said in a statement. “Watching people all night from coast to coast, in Canada and here in the U.S.--laughing, dancing, and singing--made me smile.”

Theaters across the country reported sold-out venues and more than 300,000 viewers, according to Kopp.

The film was created and released exclusively for drive-in theaters by Encore Live.

“This pandemic has been interesting,” Kopp said euphemistically. “It brought back the popularity of something that was common in the 1940s and 1950s.”