For Drive-In Theaters, an Unexpected Revival

Jen Philhower, 48, a part-time workplace supervisor in Austin, Texas, is among the many Americans adjusting to nearly each group exercise being canceled, as individuals transfer indoors and into isolation to keep away from spreading the novel coronavirus.

“My youngest goes to wilderness school, and even that is closed,” she stated. “When even playing in the woods is closed, things start to feel a little strange.”

So Ms. Philhower was stunned — ecstatic, even — to see one group leisure venue nonetheless open for enterprise: the Blue Starlite, an area drive-in movie show presently permitting 35 to park at one time.

Located on a hill with the Austin skyline within the background, the theater resembles a “cool junkyard,” based on Josh Frank, the proprietor, who opened it a decade in the past. Since the virus hit the United States, the theater has screened films together with “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club.”

Last Tuesday, theatergoers watched brief movies that have been scheduled to premiere on the South by Southwest pageant in Austin earlier than it bought canceled, and a function from the pageant is scheduled for later this month.

When Ms. Philhower’s youngsters, who’re 20, 16 and 12, have been youthful, the household would frequent the theater. The youngsters beloved sitting on the roof of the automotive and chomping on sweet below the celebrities.

“We must have seen ‘Goonies’ three times one year,” she stated. But they hadn’t thought to return till they discovered themselves going stir loopy at dwelling below the brand new public-health tips.

“It makes perfect sense,” Ms. Philhower stated. “We can all sit in our cars, away from each other, and do something fun.”

Drive-in film theaters might look like a blast from the previous, one thing out of the 1950s or ’60s. Numerous child boomers haven’t gone for many years; Gen Xers and millennials, maybe by no means.

But there are nonetheless 305 of them within the United States, based on the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association in Stephens City, Va. The U.D.T.O.A. says every state has a drive-in movie theater except Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and North Dakota.

While most drive-in theaters open for the summer, some of their owners have decided to get an early start this year to provide families an escape insulated by their cars during the pandemic, as malls, concert halls and restaurants shut down. “Who would have thought that drive-in movies would one day again become the most attractive option for going out?” Mr. Frank said.

Other owners are proceeding with caution, watching a situation that changes every day. “I think we’ve got a lucky opportunity,” said Stephen Sauerbeck, who owns Sauerbeck Family Drive-In Theater in La Grange, Ky. “But I also wonder if it’s a too-good-to-be-true kind of thing.”

Mr. Sauerbeck was correct. For the past week he has been in discussions with the governor of Kentucky and the commissioner of public health. While the option of showing movies seems to be ruled out, the state is currently allowing him to sell popcorn over the weekend and lend his venue to churches for services (patrons can sit in the car and listen to the service on their radios).

Of course, none of that is set in stone, he said. “It seems to change every day.”

“It’s a responsibility on our side to be as safe as possible,” Mr. Sauerbeck said. “I don’t want this to be, ‘We found a loophole in the situation, and we are going to operate an underground business the government is trying to shut down.’”

Even before the coronavirus arrived, the drive-in movie theater business was experiencing a small renaissance.

At the end of February Mr. Frank opened a second Blue Starlite, in Round Rock, a town 25 miles north of Austin. Every weekend there have been three to five shows, all of which have sold out days in advance.

“It’s been really, really, really something,” he said. “If I had opened a Round Rock location years ago, I would be maybe three decades closer to retirement.”

Mr. Sauerbeck opened his drive-in theater in August 2018, after the last indoor theater, owned by Regal Cinemas, closed in La Grange. “2019 was such a strong summer,” he said. “‘Lion King,’ ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Spider-Man’ all performed well for us, and we grew our customers every month as long as the weather cooperated.”

The theater may look like an old dirt field, but every component of the theater is thought through. “We have no speakers or poles as some of the older ones do,” he said. “We also have a gravel parking lot so we can operate if it’s raining.”

In the recent Quentin Tarantino film “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood,” a still-extant drive-in movie theater in Paramount, Calif., stands in for one long demolished in Van Nuys.

Being cooped up at home hasn’t stopped Americans from posting on Instagram and other social media platforms — indeed, it has encouraged some to step up the pace — and many drive-in theaters are trying to help provide safe and novel content.

People were even dancing by their cars at intermission, though there is a rule that they must stay in their car at all times except to use the restroom. “We made the choice to make the most of our time,” Mr. Lundquist said. “I do feel that if people did try a drive-in they would see the magic of the experience.”

Drive-in theaters that are open are taking extra precautions to ensure social distancing. At the Blue Starlite, you can now just flash your tickets on your phone from your window to gain admission. Many theaters have started having people order concessions by phone. Servers wearing latex gloves deliver them to the car so crowds don’t congregate in concession stands.

There are some drive-in theaters that would love to open right now but are prevented by restrictions or their worries.

After advertising on social media that it would open seven days a week while children are out of school, the Summer Quartet Drive In in Memphis was forced to close Wednesday because it is operated by Malco, and the company closed all its theaters.

Brian Francis, who runs the 99W Drive-In Theatre in Newburgh, Ore., received 30 messages from customers in the past week asking him to open early. “Folks are thinking that the drive-in is the original social distance way to see a movie, and this is some kind of golden opportunity for the vanishing drive-ins to shine,” he wrote in an email.

But Mr. Francis is hesitant to do so until he is sure Oregon won’t implement a lockdown. He is in touch with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Oregon Health Authority and his state representative, to see, “when, if, and how we can open for the 2020 season,” he said. “I want to do my part to flatten the curve.”

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