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Drive-In Theaters Successfully Sweep Through the Nation with a Surprising Comeback

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March forced movie theaters across the country to shut down for an indeterminate period of time. In their place, pop-up drive-in theaters swept the nation. To learn more about the different challenges pop-ups and established drive-ins faced this summer, we spoke with the operating manager and owner of both, respectively.  

Kilburn Live, an event company that creates in-person experiences for young children and adults alike, typically hosts events such as “The Dr. Seuss Experience” and a “Nerf Challenge.” However, due to the pandemic, these activities could not be modified for a safe environment, forcing the company to think outside the box and pivot in a different direction. 

Daniel Wu, Kilburn Media’s Operations Manager, said many of the senior leaders of the company have a background in motion pictures, which led to the solution of creating a drive-in theater pop-up experience. From there, Cinema Drive-Ins was born. Their goal was to learn if this old school form of entertainment would attract people.

“People still want some type of leisure or entertainment, which is how the concept of drive-ins surged,” Wu said. “We pivoted to try to understand what consumers want and how they can still feel safe while attending.”

The first pop-ups opened in early summer, screening everything from classics such as “The Goonies” to fan favorites such as the entire “Harry Potter” series. On Oct. 17, they plan on screening the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with a socially distanced meet-and-greet with original cast member, Barry Bostwick.  

A packed audience enjoys a night at Cinema Drive-Ins at the Woodbridge, NJ location.

Currently, the company has nine locations nationwide, spanning from California to New Jersey. At each location, necessary precautions have been put in place to ensure attendees’ safety. From maintaining full parking spots between each car to allow for social distancing to enforcing no large gatherings, Kilburn Live has worked tirelessly to make sure local COVID-19 guidelines are met. 

Similarly, Warwick Drive-In in Warwick, New York, has also implemented new procedures to ensure safety. Unlike Cinema Drive-Ins, Warwick celebrated its 70th anniversary this year and is a drive-in in the more traditional sense: multiple screens, a ramp so that cars don’t obscure views for attendees, and the ability to play new movies that screen at regular theaters. 

Warwick Drive-In has had to decrease its capacity to half and reduce its staff as a result of the pandemic, said Beth Wilson, owner of the company. They have also had to adjust how they operate the concession stand, allowing snacks and food from outside the venue for the first time ever. 

“If you don’t want to go to the snack bar and order food, I don’t want to make you. If you have your own food in your car and that makes you more comfortable, that’s fine,” Wilson said. “Everybody is different with the pandemic, I’ve had one man come in with five different masks on and gloves to his shoulders.”

However, despite the challenges drive-ins have faced, turnout has still been very high at both Warwick Drive-In and Cinema Drive-Ins. The Woodbridge, New Jersey, branch of Cinema Drive-Ins sold out every single week in the summer. Similarly, Warwick Drive-In has also sold out nearly every night with a great number of new customers flocking to it in droves. Wilson said that even people who live over two hours away have been coming.

Wu believes that since there have been such limited options for entertainment this summer, especially safe ones, people have turned to drive-ins for their dose of fun and relaxation without having to worry too much about contracting the virus. 

Cinema Drive-Ins has also been attempting to elevate the typical drive-in experience, making it more immersive for the whole family. Michelle Levengood, the Event Manager at the Woodbridge branch, has been engaging with the audience with activities matching the theme of the movies, including everything from trivia to online arcade games.

A drone overview of Cinema Drive-Ins’ Woodbridge location.

“They like the content, the experience, and most importantly: they feel safe. That’s exactly what we’re looking to do,” Wu said. “The added experience on top of just watching the movie is exactly what keeps people coming back.”

At Warwick Drive-In, Wilson has seen a greater influx of families coming together to watch movies. She said this is likely due to the fact that coming to the drive-in with their family is a cheaper option than looking to hire a babysitter for the kids, and it brings families closer together.

However, as the weather has been getting a bit cooler and school has started to pick up for kids, Wu said Cinema Drive-Ins is starting to see a bit of decline in attendance, especially on Thursday and Sunday nights. To remedy this dilemma, they plan to have an entirely spooky-themed October by playing a larger variety of movies to attract a more diverse audience. This will include horror movies that may be rated R, and thus not for children. 

The next question is how long will these pop-ups be able to stay open? When the winter months come, and with the added barriers of snow and cold weather, will people still turn to drive-ins for entertainment? The answer is as long as there is demand, Cinema Drive-Ins will be there. 

There’s no confusion as to why people enjoy their experience so greatly, and why so many have asked Wu to keep Cinema Drive-Ins running longer: nothing compares to the experience a person has at a drive-in.

“It’s relaxing, and there’s comfort in having your own space,” Wilson said. “It’s a magical evening, sitting out there, watching a movie under the stars.” 


Photographs: Adam C. Cohen Photography / Video: Courtesy of Helaman Garcia/Cinema Drive-Ins

Rebecca Aizin

I'm a journalism and psychology student at Northwestern University, also pursuing a certificate in Integrated Marketing Communications. I am passionate about life & style and entertainment journalism, and have gone from working on my own fashion/lifestyle blog in high school to working here at Young Hot & Modern magazine!