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'Bigger and safer under the stars’: Drive-ins reopen amid pandemic

Saturday, June 6th 2020, 9:36 am - You’d think being in the safety of your own vehicle would be enough of a social distancing measure for drive-in theatres, but that is not the case. The province of Ontario has given the greenlight to drive-in operators to open but under the same strict rules they have laid out for retailers and other facilities.

People think that COVID-19 is bringing back the trend of hitting up the drive-in when in fact, the drive-in has always been a popular destination.

And though being in your own car is not, on its own, enough of a social-distancing measure, operators say the way we watch under the stars is getting much safer.

“The car really does give people the feeling of comfort and safety and in our case, we will be social distancing the cars even so your car will probably be at least 15 feet away from the next car,” said Brian Allen, the president of Premier Operating Corporation, which owns and operates five drive-in locations in Ontario.

Allen says since the 1930s the drive-in movie experience has been popular for all ages. Just like all other businesses, they too are adapting the experience to be much more socially distant than before.

In the case of the Sunset Barrie Drive-In, Assistant Manager Sydney Dobson says they are cutting the car count by more than half to ensure a safe distance between vehicles and people, going down to 35 per cent of normal capacity first, with plans to ease it up to 50 per cent.

DriveIn Photo: Marta Czurylowicz.

Originally the province ordered a pause on concession sales, which Allen says cut into what is actually the most profitable part of the business. The operators have since managed to get the province to rethink the initial decision, and are once again permitted to sell snacks at concession stands, provided they do so safely.

“The way we've designed our concessions, we are going to be very rigorous with this, so essentially all our concessions will either be shut down or will be completely protected by plexiglass depending on each location. Some of our locations we will be locking them right down and just doing a take out window,” Allen says.

Other safety measures include dispensing condiments in small packets rather than through pumps, along with individually wrapped straws.

“So every provision we can think of, we are taking so there is no feeling of nervousness and trying to eliminate the points of contact,” he says.

The company is even thinking of introducing a drive-in concept style of ordering food as well, possibly using an app for online sales of concession items that would then be delivered to patrons’ cars.

“The quickest food like the popcorn, drinks, stuff like that will be handed to the customers right away and for the hot foods, that takes a little bit longer, they can wait outside social distancing and not inside the building or they will give us the number of the post they’re at … and we will have some of our employees deliver it right to their vehicle,” Dobson adds.

Even the choice of movies will have a classic twist to them, Dobson says, opting for old favourites such as Grease or Dirty Dancing, with beloved old cartoons as well.

“I am so excited, because [of] the idea of playing all of these movies that I loved. All John Hughes movies, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and definitely Back To The Future, ET, Jaws,” said Allen.



Allen says he has been getting more requests from schools and other organizations to hold bigger ceremonies and festivals of sorts.

“It's probably gone up ... 500 per cent,” he said. “We've always done corporate rentals and things like that, we've always had a steady flow but not to this level … I'm getting 10 a day per theatre.”

With traditional graduation ceremonies not allowed, schools have also approached the various locations in the hopes of making use of the big outdoor screens as an alternative.

As for tickets, people will have to pre-purchase them online to avoid crowding at the gates but also to enforce the strict car count.

“But the good thing is you'll be able to order your tickets in advance. So if you're sold out for Friday night you can buy a ticket for Saturday, like, all seven days of the first week will be available online on sale,” said Allen. “And then when you get to the box office you will bring your ticket with you and it will be scanned and then you will come into the theatre.”

Various theatres have various plans for dates to reopen, so it is important you check their websites for more information.

“We're still not getting rid of the fun quotient. It's going to be a lot of fun to come to the drive-in. You're going to have a quasi-social experience. And it's funny, we've changed our phrase to describe the experience, because it was always ‘Enjoy the movies: movies are bigger and better under the stars.’ Now it’s ‘Enjoy the movie: movies are bigger and safer under the stars,’ he Allen says.

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