Drive-in movie theaters have been something of a salvation during the coronavirus pandemic. As one of the few entertainment joints that are safe to visit outside of the house, they’ve enjoyed a huge boost in popularity. But don’t call it a comeback, says Transit Drive-In Theater owner Rick Cohen.
Outdoor moviegoing, once seen as a relic from another century, has become the go-to spot for those itching to social distance from their couch. That’s left Cohen, whose venue is in upstate New York, regularly fielding calls from local and national reporters.
“I’m juggling all this media — they’re all over the drive-in resurgence,” Cohen tells Variety days after his theater opened for the season. “Drive-ins aren’t having a resurgence. Drive-ins have been doing well. It’s a resurgence of the media remembering that drive-ins still exist.”
That may be true, but there’s no denying that drive-in theaters are uniquely suited to thrive while most multiplexes stay closed due to the global heath crisis. And though there aren’t many left in the U.S. — about 300 drive-ins still exist, compared to over 5,400 brick-and-mortar theaters — they’ve been rare bright spots for the exhibition industry. The bulk of those who own and operate cinemas are struggling to survive, having been left without a way to make money while theaters are shuttered.
Cohen considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Transit Drive-In, located about 30 minutes north of Buffalo in Lockport, is seasonal (probably a good thing considering western New York’s arctic chill during much of the winter). It doesn’t open until summer when it’s finally warm enough to spend time outdoors. Cohen had been planning to dust off projectors and set up shop in the middle of March, just in time for “A Quiet Place Part II,” a sequel to John Krasinski’s horror hit. When Paramount pulled it from release, Cohen delayed the reopening — first voluntarily before it became mandatory two weeks later.
Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave drive-ins in his state permission to sell tickets again and Transit Drive-In was able to open just in time for Memorial Day weekend. For many cinemas, Cohen’s included, the end May through Labor Day in September remains one of busiest times of year.
But for the first time in the 33 years that Cohen has been running herd, things at Transit Drive-In look a little different.
For one, he’s capped capacity in the parking lot at 50% to allow more space between vehicles. That’s resulted in roughly 640 spots up for grabs nightly across five screens. There’s an average of 2.3 adults per car, but even with admission running at $10 a pop, Cohen’s math suggests there’s “potential money left on the table.”
“We routinely sell out in the summertime when there’s a big new movie and the weather is good,” he said.
Also for the first time, tickets are only being sold online. That safety measure limits the handling of cash, while ensuring spots aren’t oversold. “I’m going to have to pay higher processing fees because I can’t take cash,” he said. “But it’s better than being closed.”
There are more employees working than usual to assist with new protocol, meaning Cohen’s payroll will be higher with less revenue coming in. Still, he isn’t worried about restrictive sales or making ends meet. “Opening a drive-in, for me, wasn’t about how much money I can make it. It was about serving the community safely,” he said.
Here’s what a typical night now looks like:
5:50 p.m. — Arrive at the Transit Drive-In
Cohen’s day begins well before he first shows up to work, often answering emails and sifting through voicemails from patrons before he pivots to run other errands. Even though tapes don’t start rolling until 9 p.m., he gets in just before the clock strikes 6 to greet the eager customers hoping to get the best spot in the lot.
“There’s only so many spaces in the front,” he said. “Before this, they would throw a Frisbee around or take the dog out. A drive-in is part camping, part movie theater and part tailgate party. So now, it’s a little less of each of those, but still a lot of fun.”
6 p.m. — Start to scan tickets
There are pros and cons to the online-only system for buying tickets, though overall they’ve found it has made arrivals more efficient. Employees can methodically scan tickets before sending customers through.
But the new process is not without its hiccups.
“We noticed right away that people who buy their tickets on three days notice either make mistakes or change their minds,” he grumbles. “It’s really aggravating. We had to go into extensive detail on our website ticketing purchase page. Apparently ‘all transactions are final, no exceptions’ is not clear enough.”
6 p.m. – 9 p.m. — Selling concessions and keeping restrooms clean
No moviegoing experience would be complete without a large tub of popcorn and an ice cold soda. Plus, concession stand sales are a major source of revenue for theaters. Plexiglass has been installed at the snack bar, where each cashier is equipped with their own bottle of hand sanitizer. They’re also donning face masks and gloves. Only one register is permitted to take cash. It requires two employees, one to handle the food and one to handle the transactions. A second register accept credit cards and a third is reserved for advance orders handled by phone.
“I ordered hands-free sanitizer stations in March. I was lucky to get them in May,” Cohen said. “I had to beg my supplier for them. The producers can barely keep up. The fact that I got my hands on three of them… someone up there was looking out for me. I got lucky.”
There are two entrances to the snack bar, where two more staffers are monitoring the area to ensure there aren’t more than 10 people inside at once.
“That’s another team of staff members who wouldn’t be on the schedule that we’re providing for safety,” he said. “People aren’t going to police that themselves, you need someone to allow people in as room becomes available.”
Restrooms are also a concern, Cohen recognizes, so attendants sanitize each of the 16 stalls after every use. That requires three extra people — one surveying lines outside the bathroom, a female to disinfect the ladies’ room and a male to clean the men’s room.
“We want every person who uses our restroom to feel safe. The only way to do that is to literally disinfect the stall after every use,” he said.
9 p.m. Roll the tapes
Most drive-in theaters entice families with an evening of double-bills. But in an effort to reduce the foot traffic in restrooms and concession stands, Transit Drive-in is only showing single features.
“We don’t want to encourage people to stay for two movies where there’s a crush to use the restroom in between,” Cohen said. “That’s a sacrifice our customers are making. It’s not something we prefer to do because one of the advantages of attending drive-ins has been double features.”
Since studios are releasing new movies less frequently, recent films like the animated “Trolls World Tour” and thriller “The Invisible Man” have been mainstays on the marquee. “People love scary movies at drive-ins. Horror and suspense do well,” he said. “And family pictures are very popular.”
11:30 p.m. Usher the last car out and clean the premises
Typically, showtimes are staggered so there isn’t a mad dash to leave. They’re still experimenting with what times work best. But for the most part, that aspect has been smooth sailing.
“Without intermissions, you don’t have concession-stand congestion,” he said. “When the movie is over, everyone leaves.”
When the final car exits the grounds, Cohen sends his crew to clean any garbage that’s been left behind.
“That’s fun,” he jokes, “collecting covid-infected trash from the parking lot. We’re wearing PPE gloves and just tossing in garbage bag. As long as you’re conscious of what you’re doing and have protective gear, you don’t have to be wearing a hazmat suit.”
12 a.m. Send the crew home
Working at a drive-in often means late nights, but shifts have been ending slightly earlier in the age of coronavirus. Intermission is normally around midnight, which signals a blitz to buy popcorn, hot dogs and fries before the second film starts playing. On an average day, they’d leave around 2 a.m. — sometimes after 2:30 if it’s a lengthy movie. (“It should be a law,” he laments, “that all theatrical movies should be two hours or less.”)
“What’s weird is I feel more tired after a single-feature performance, getting out before midnight, than I did before when we were showing two movies,” Cohen said. “It’s a lot more stressful. You feel a lot more responsibility — the burden of people’s health and safety.”