Back to the Future— - ICTA Back to the Future— - ICTA

Back to the Future—

September 29, 2020
Back to the Future—

How Drive-Ins and Pop-Up Cinemas Complement the Moviegoing Experience

Continuing its webinar series, having covered “Cinema vs. Coronavirus” and “Cinema Design Considerations in the Covid-19 Aftermath,” ICTA, in association with BoxOffice Pro Live, held a simultaneous broadcast in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles entitled “Back to the Future-How Drive-ins and Pop-Up Cinemas Complement the Moviegoing Experience.”

Moderated by ICTA VP Frank Tees (Moving Image Technologies), the webinar featured five one-on-one interviews with leading exhibitors and ICTA service and product members, and was prefaced by Tees.


“Some of the first (exhibitors) to re-open are those operating traditional drive-in cinemas,” said Tees, who gave a quick history of this cinema subset, noting that they generally emerged in the 1950s, allowing audiences to view films from their “beloved automobiles.” Those were the heyday of drive-ins,  with 4,063 venues by 1958 entertaining millions. But by 1988, more than one thousand closed, as retiree owners sold land and “new forms of entertainment emerged to compete with them.”

Nowadays, there are roughly 539 drive-in screens across 300-plus locations in the USA. “Drive-ins have been able to open early in most areas in a time of Covid-19,” due to the natural safe-distancing of being in vehicles and in turn, the sense of security that provides moviegoers, noted Tees. These conditions enabled drive-in cinemas to nab the top spots in show grosses for months now.

The success of the traditional drive-ins has spawned an array of ‘pop-up’ drive-ins, taking advantage of  field, parks and other natural settings, along with the parking lots of indoor cinemas and even retail stores like Walmart. “Screens are secured to the exterior of a building, or on truss structures and even standalone, inflatable screens,” Tees enthused, reminding viewers that as well as screens, ICTA tech manufacturers have projectors that can operate well in the outdoors, sometimes running entirely by generators.

Doug Sabin and John Vincent, in Conversation (View Video)

To kick off the webinar, Doug Sabin, VP and COO of American Cinema Equipment (ACE), checked in with John Vincent, Jr., President of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association (UDITOA).

As CEO of Spring Brook Center, Inc., John heads the operation of the Wellfleet Cinemas 4 & Drive-In Theater, Wellfleet Flea Market and Wellfleet Dairy Bar, Grill, & Mini Golf, over 27 acres in Wellfleet, (Barnstable County) Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As such, he’s highly-dependent on the northeast US tourist season, and on technology and service support provided by ACE.

“Our biggest concern as drive-in owners, ten years ago or so, was surviving the transition to digital cinema, which we did with lots of help from ICTA members, NATO, CGB and Cinedigm,” noted Vincent, and then “Covid hit and I had to close my indoor cinema, in mid-March, like everyone else, but always knew that our drive-in option would probably open first, later on.”

UDITOA lobbied various States, especially New York, and is now trying to get their adjacent, indoor cinemas open as well. “We drive-in operators have had lots of weekly calls…and we are all thankful for what we can do, but with only being allowed 50 percent of capacity, my drive-in revenue is down,” said Vincent. “March, April and May are usually good months and they were lost to us, although some did quite well in the months following. Still, we’re ecstatic to be operating and carrying the flag for our cinema industry.”

Doug asked if Covid has sparked permanent drive-in design changes.

“…if you were building a drive-in from scratch, social distancing would be top of mind…we now provide food service to the cars, with no cafeteria style as in the past. The self-service model may return in full, and maybe the NAC has more answers on that. In a normal year, people would just take their fries and burgers off the cafeteria-style line but in Covid, that’s out.”

Warming to the topic, Vincent joked that viewing angles of today’s cars are not as good as in the 50s and 60s’ vehicles, and so people began bringing lawn chairs but that’s problematic now during a time of Covid. Still possible but in a new build, it would require more space between (audio) speaker poles, “but aside from that, I don’t see any big changes in terms of how we set-up and run our operations; we were built for it [the present Covid operating environment],” said Vincent.

While acknowledging that Spring Brook Center is heavily dependent on tourists and therefore not typical of drive-in’s across the United States, “we’re finding that families are dropping off as they get back into routines for schools, etc., so my grosses are softening.” Also, the end of the summer tourism period means that Vincent isn’t considering running his drive-in deeper into the year, since the tourists have gone.

Getting labor is problematic as well, and college kids from across the world who normally would help out through the J1 Support Program (foreign visas) are obviously non-existent now, so the drive-in will close shortly, and hopes are that the indoor cinema can be opened instead. But for other drive-in owners, the Disney announcement of releasing Hocus Pocus and Coco will help them in staying open longer. “And some of my peers are reporting success with other entertainment events, like concerts, both real concerts (i.e., ‘live, in-person’ ones) and the pre-recorded concerts, like Encore Live,” Vincent reported.

Are alternative event-types experiencing an uptick, Tees asked?

Some operators did non-movie events, successfully, but for Vincent, “I could not do a live concert as the noise would percolate through four adjacent neighborhoods.” Even pre-recorded concerts are problematic, “… as people turn up the volume in their cars, leave their windows open, and that would invoke noise complaints. Many operators did do concerts, corporate events and some more out-of-box performances, like school graduations,” said Vincent, “but there are gathering-laws in effect, to keep people isolated and if it crosses the line into an ‘outdoor gathering,’ you’re going to get in trouble.”

Would you change the positions of your speaker poles, pulling them out and making larger spots, Tees mused.  Vincent said his permanent speaker poles in 100 percent of his spots would limit redoing the lot, so he is happy with his present set-up, as they serve as PA speakers for announcements to his flea-market as well. “Speakers are important so we invested some money, got a new QSC ISA Series amplifier, which increased frequency response – thank you QSC for making that product – and although it’s a mono delivery, that’s okay for cars and sounds very good,” said Vincent.  The speakers also helped Vincent maintain one full space between cars, 12 feet while you could get away with 6, which in turn contributed to customers feeling safer, even when using lawn chairs. “Besides, my space is paved, so it isn’t practical to re-position the poles, really,” said Vincent.

Sabin asked if it was a plus to his drive-in to have so many other associated venues, such as the flea market and mini-golf range?

Mini-golf is a draw but unfortunately Vincent couldn’t open it this year, as it precluded proper social distancing given his coincident changes to the food area, but “any time you can increase the ‘take’ once you have your customers ‘on property’, it’s a win. And the flea-market is a good, complementary day-use but it’s an industry that has suffered with the advent of the internet, so I go with an eclectic one…but I do know that some drive-in’s are branching out into day-time comedy shows and other day-time events, as you don’t need a big screen; you simply get them up on a stage and give them a microphone.” Spacing shows between indoor and drive-in cinemas makes better use of your staff to do both, observed Vincent and that helps.

Noting that he is an inter-operator, Vincent espoused the hope that more inter-operators would get into the pop-up business, and said “I know how it feels this summer to have part of your business delivering zero revenue, while having to pay legacy electricity bills including capacity charges and everything. But I’d love to see them branch out with DCI-compliant projectors, FM sound, while understanding the liability perspective.”

Expanding on liability, Vincent said aerial lighting is a must, so that people who drive out before show-end can see obstructions in the dark, including people walking around. Luckily, aerial can be done pretty cheaply.

Vincent ended his comments with compliments to his staff for managing all the moving pieces; projection, keeping the radios on, the lights (on cars) off, the aerial lighting on, etc. “Also keep in mind, that later in the season, that a dirt lot will become a mud pit pretty fast, especially as the season progresses. Paved is better!”

Continuing the Conversation: Rick Cohen and Joe DeMeo  (View Video)

Joe DeMeo, Cinionic Director of Sales (and a past president of the ICTA), welcomed Rick Cohen, President & CEO of the Transit Drive-In Theatre in Lockport, upstate NY – a third-generation owner/operator of Transit. Cohen gave a quick history of his cinema-focused family, beginning with his grandfather, through his dad and to the present day, spanning almost 100 years of drive-in ownership.

So what’s changed, asked DeMeo? “Well, multiple screens and improved projection and AV technologies” were the big changes over the years, said Cohen. “We serve a mainly family audience, with animated films and the like but we try to diversify our offering as much as possible,” showing different genres (comedy, adventure, etc.) on different screens.

Noting how difficult the past six-to-seven months had been for the entire industry, DeMeo queried Cohen on how he and Transit were able to adapt to the changes wrought by Covid-19.

Cohen joked that whoever said operating a drive-in was going to be easy, was lying! Communication with customers is key and all ticketing is online, so the guidelines are front-and-center to begin with, so people know how to participate in advance.

Articulating a somewhat contrarian view in regards to content for his cinemas, Cohen said it’s actually liberating not to be constantly moving through new content and instead showing great classic movies. “Jurassic Park, Grease, Beetlejuice and other retro-movies are still winners and for example we showed Jurassic Park for 11 weeks and packed the shows every time.” Harry Potter also ran well for four weeks.

DeMeo asked what Cohen has been keeping an eye on, and, technology-wise, Vincent mentioned laser projection and lamented the fact that the rapid digital transition period didn’t have this technology available. “We went digital in 2012 and we pulled the trigger on laser projection this past spring, with the installation of an incredible piece of technology, the Barco DP4K-60L (6P RGB) and one couldn’t imagine that you could get that amount of light on a screen, roughly 60k lumens” said Cohen. That was paramount for Cohen, whose main screen is one of the largest in the world, measuring 100 ft by 141 ft and covering 4,000 square feet.

Interestingly enough, DeMeo said he heard that audiences watching the adjacent, smaller (60 ft x 30 ft) screens often have their attention drawn away from those screens to what’s on the biggest screen.  Cohen acknowledged that the ability to brilliantly light up the big screen with laser projection, whereas in the past it was darker, lamp-based projection, was both good and bad. “We’ll remedy that by moving to lasers for all five screens!”

The first ‘all laser drive-in’ will not just benefit from the greater light output. “I think it’s also the greater contrasts, as the ‘blacks’ are so much darker than what Xenon, DLP-chip based projectors can provide,” noted Cohen, while DeMeo said that the bolder colors and contrasts and the reduced energy costs made a strong case for laser projection.

Alternative content is not restricted to indoor cinemas, and Cohen noted that performances by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra sold out three times, mid-week, recently, as did a dance recital and school graduations, and sports too, with the NHL Stanley Cup Finals going on-screen the following week.
“Football on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights are beginning to do well, as football looks amazing on the big screen.” Mind you, you can’t charge for it, and “you can’t mention trademarked names, so you end up advertising a game between a Buffalo and a New York team, and let the fans figure it out.”

What about concessions? Everything is available as in the past, with full concessions going on, Cohen confirmed. Weather wise, the venue can open in March and operate through to the middle of November, and sometimes all the way up to New Year’s Day, said Cohen.

Cohen takes a pragmatic attitude to the business, saying that their focus is week-to-week, and “we’ll worry about next year, next year.” He hopes that the studios will follow through with first-run content for mid-summer, next year, but he has every confidence that his retro-movie line-up will continue to provide a memorable on-screen experience and draw in customers.

DeMeo seconded that thought, “it’s all about the experience” and having grown up in New York State and having fond memories of drive-ins, he thanked Cohen and all drive-in owners for leading the charge into a Covid world.

Kissing cousins to traditional drive-ins are ‘pop up’ cinemas, which often have different requirements, and certainly require different screens. Tees introduced ICTA’s European Representative (and independent cinema advisor) Jan Runge, who enlisted the aid of the Managing Director & Founder of Airscreen, Christian Kremer, on this very topic.

A European (and global) Perspective from Jan Runge and Christian Kremer  (View Video)

Kremer introduced Airscreen, which markets an inflatable, and therefore very mobile and pop-up/drive-in friendly cinema screen, which is marketed globally, with installations in 125 countries. Runge in turn projected images of the screen in use, including the premiere of a movie on top of a Norwegian mountain, adjacent to a seaside cliff. It was used for the premiere of Mission Impossible 6 (‘Fallout’).

After remarking on the incredible picture the mountain-top screen showed, Runge showed a more conventional venue, which Kremer described as a drive-in within Berlin on a rented location. The final shot, the largest scene, showed an Airscreen in the middle of St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) in Venice, Italy, which premiered Dreamworks’ Shark Tail during a past Venice Film Festival.

Referencing the current, turbulent times buffeting the cinema industry, Runge asked Kremer about the impact on his business specifically. “Phones stopped ringing and emails coming in, as everyone was paralyzed in March, but then there was a radical change again in April, and the phones started up again,” as exhibitors the world over began asking for drive-in screen options and it’s been busy ever since, said Kremer.

Runge asked if the mix of customers had also changed, with firms other than cinemas approaching him.

“Open-air cinemas were our main focus pre-Covid but we have shifted to drive-in cinemas, as Europe normalizes operations, and another shift is the return to global markets, as now we’re also seeing some countries opening up their markets again,” said Kremer. Were there best practices that exhibitors could learn from the events’ business, as opening up drive-ins and pop-up cinemas had operating similarities to open-air events…or was the comparison not valid, asked Runge.

Operations entail much more than “just showing a movie” so yes, Kremer agreed that exhibitors could learn a lot from the events world, with the most important element being the [attractiveness] of the location; not just throwing up something in any old parking lot, “but making it an experience in a really nice location.” Catering is very important and contributes to the experiential aspect, “with [perhaps] food trucks serving a variety of foods so people can come earlier, have dinner with their family and friends, followed by the movie and then perhaps a band playing afterwards,” said Kremer. The movie-going experience at a drive-in cinema or pop-up can then be “a lot more fun,” he maintained.

Runge mused that this implies a different business model, needing more community awareness and making it more marketable, using public relations (PR) activities. “Absolutely; a standard cinema has difficulty ever making the front page of the local newspaper but if you create a nice open-air cinema with attractive backdrop, our experience shows the local newspaper features you on the front page;
it becomes free advertising (PR)…and that in turn is useful to make cinema [attendance] the focus again and making it attractive to go to the movies,” with the caveat that it’s all correctly socially-distanced, in a car, but it still works.

A clip then was shown of the Airscreen drive model that allows dual projection, with the screen in the middle, hence giving you double-sided projection and audiences, and this extends to showing two different movies at a time. It also saves space, and is economical.”

Jeff Kaplan, NEC Display Solutions, National Accounts and Rolando Rodriguez, Chair and CEO of Marcus Theatres and Vice-Chair of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO)

An Update from NATO and Marcus   (View Video)

The goals for companies opening and running drive-ins, and Pop-Up or parking-lot cinemas may be different than indoor cinemas – what were Marcus’ original goals, asked Kaplan, and why did you call it a ‘parking-lot cinema’?

“First and foremost, we started our drive-ins, the parking-lot cinemas, as a means of dealing with the virus, as other entertainment options were just not available; as you couldn’t go to restaurants or retail stores, so here was the opportunity to resurrect an older idea that we all grew up with as kids, and now [made perfect sense] to go with your family, in a safe environment – your car – and watch a movie,” said Rodriguez.

“We called it the parking-lot cinema to remind our customers that this idea was in fact tied into our existing indoor theatres; we used the parking lots for those theatres, as a great brand reminder. So it became a great opportunity to keep consumers connected with and reminded of the product that we sell…”

What were some of the challenges you faced, asked Kaplan. “Many challenges; we didn’t always think of the challenges we would face, so I have a new-found respect for my drive-in colleagues. First, we had to create an entirely new ticketing method but that also gave us a great opportunity during a difficult time to test all of our [forthcoming, indoor] safety protocols, outside.

“Now that’s critical; we had to test and put these in place; the safe distancing, the sanitation protocols, the ability for consumers to purchase food on a ‘distanced’ basis and also on-line…and by the way we had great help from our friends at Strong Entertainment at Ballantyne Strong, particularly Ray Boegner (President), who helped us set up all the technology necessary, not only the screens, but systems, egress and exists – everything that needed to come together to show movies in a parking lot,” noted Rodriguez.

Did it meet needs, and were you successful? “We put five of them all together and all did well but some did better than others…but I thought it was a great success because it kept our associates and our customers connected to our brand, it kept them connected to the movie-going experience and I’d say it did well financially. So when you couple all those elements together, we feel really good about how this opportunity played out for us.”

As Vice Chair of NATO, what has it been working on to help members through these trying times, asked Kaplan, to which Rodriguez expressed his pleasure in serving with a tremendous Board at NATO, and John Fithian the CEO and his great team. Addressing the question, first, the work of the combination of a lot of great people came together, beginning with lobbying efforts to governmental agencies to help exhibitors get permission to open their markets, and obtain loans for same.

“Secondly, we had to think about how to re-open the industry and connect to consumers, politicians and health-care providers, and that brought us to a very important project which is CinemaSafe program . That program is basically the safety protocols that are necessary to reopen that NATO developed, working with epidemiologists and experts across other industries to put together a safety program that been very well accepted; not only by our membership – in fact we have over 390 that have joined, representing over 33,000 screens participating in this – and this is critical as it represents one voice to our consumers that our industry is very serious about their health and safety, while providing an incredible entertainment experience,” noted Rodriguez.

“We have a lot of important work going on at NATO and one of particular importance is to keep up our public relations and marketing efforts to remind consumers that we are a ‘fun’ business,” maintained Rodriguez, “and in a time when our society and our county are going through a lot of pain, you couldn’t ask for a better entertainment experience that will provide fun while looking after their safety. We’re in a great industry, a fun industry and we need to ensure that our consumers and our associates feel good about going back to the movies.”

First-Time Drive-In Owner Closes Webinar   (View Video)

In conclusion, Kaplan interviewed Jason Ostrow, VP of Development for Star Cinema Grill, which chose to open its first drive-in, in Cypress Texas in September.

Why add one, asked Kaplan. “We wanted to do a drive-in early on, when the shutdown occurred but with so many furloughed staff, and then a smaller level of business when we re-opened, it took some time. I’ve never been to a drive-in before but we figured it out, built some screens, figured out the technology and it’s turned into a success, with every show for two weekends in a row being sold out,” Ostrow enthused.

“It was a lot of trial and error, a lot of work but it was a success so now we’re working on opening number two and number three.” Kaplan recounted how Star Cinema chose to synch up two projectors, about 30 feet apart with one FM transmitter, and asked if that was a challenge.

“We switched course and instead we run the projectors through their own laptops each, but we did a countdown and the projectors play in synch. Then we break all the equipment down after the final show, bring it inside, and then put it all up again for the following night, so we tried to keep the cabling simple; it works!” noted Ostrow. “Transporting one hundred thousand dollars in and out required thought, and also stopping the over-heating and condensation problems that a humid environment provides needed attention.”

Star Cinema first housed the projectors in open tents but opted in the end for closed, air-conditioned sheds, so “it’s evolved into a semi-sophisticated setup on the outside” said Ostrow.

“I had to get the actual screen structures given permits (in Harris County) but that’s it; our parking lot with the sheds and such required no additional permits from the city. But although we’re using our own parking lots, the way that they’re designed, with nice trees, we don’t have room to throw a lot of light onto the sides of our buildings, and then it’s not a good idea for one massive wooden structure during hurricane season, so we went to two screens, which also enables showing two different movies at the same time,” said Ostrow.

Star Cinema Grill has been operating an inside and outdoor setups in September and although its top-grossing movie was inside – Tenet – its second was a drive-in showing Tenet and then the remaining top grosser were also drive-in shows (Despicable Me and Jurassic Park). “So our 8 o’clock show, the first drive in time, has the most customers, with 50 cars and in fact it advertises the indoor shows (“oh, you’re open inside?” was a typical response), which drives indoor attendance.

Tees concluded with the observation that where there is a will, there is a way, as the pop-up cinemas remind us of. “Thanks to Box Office Pro and all of our guests for making this webinar happen.”

Upcoming Events


New ICTA Bundle Sponsorships

December 1 - 31 2023

New York

Are you a member?

Get priority access to events

Join ICTA Today