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Cinema

Sunset Falls on a Historic Season for the Drive-in

November 2, 2020

NEW YORK — Julia Wiggin was still shivering after running out to hang up the weekend's marquee — "Ghostbusters," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" — at her Northfield Drive-in near Hinsdale, New Hampshire.

"It's cold," Wiggin said on a bitter, wet morning. "It's definitely time we closed." 

After a historic season, winter is coming at the drive-in. Summer and early fall have seen their simple, old-fashioned lots transformed into a surprisingly elastic omnibus of pandemic-era gathering. It has hosted concerts and comedy shows, business conferences and Sunday services, graduations and weddings. Dodger fans watched their team win the World Series from a drive-in in their stadium's parking lot. Red-carpet premieres that would normally consume Lincoln Center uprooted to drive-ins. (At one, Bill Murray joked that he'd visit every car.) Even the campaign trail joined the trend, leading to the first ever presidential race that included a mini-referendum on the drive-in. "You know, people in cars. I don't get it," said Donald Trump after Joe Biden's Atlanta drive-in rally. 

Yet the drive-in has undeniably saved a small slice of 2020, offering socially-distanced salvation at a time when most large gatherings are off the table because of the pandemic. But, well, it's starting to get pretty cold — at least in much of the country. Drive-ins in Texas, California and Florida can keep humming all year but most of the U.S.'s roughly 300 drive-ins are seasonal. They aren't built for the cold, and they're definitely not built for the snow.

With temperatures dropping — and even some flurries this past weekend — one of the pandemic's few bright spots is running low on time. But many drive-ins are staying open well beyond normal closing, stretching a season that might usually end around Labor Day much later. Some are selling a lot of hot chocolate.

"I don't think people mind the cold," says Wiggin. "I've seen people bring sleeping bags and, like, a tarp. They're die-hards. Well, OK, if you're willing to come out, I'm willing to come out."

The Northfield Drive-in went over by two months before its Halloween-weekend finale. That's mainly because the drive-in has turned into what Wiggin calls "a major community service project," hosting graduations for everyone from fifth-graders to doctors of internal medicine. On Sunday, a Shakespeare theater group was on the schedule.

John Vincent, president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, estimates more than 200 drive-ins were still operating through Sunday. Showing movies is only part of it, especially since Hollywood studios aren't releasing their big films. Marcella Snyder who runs the Tibbs Drive-in in Indianapolis, usually hosts one or two private events a year. This year, she hosted 50. The requests are still coming for November or December. 

"We're looking at frost warnings but the people are still coming," says Snyder, who has seen hot chocolate sales skyrocket as temperatures have plummeted. "If it starts snowing, what am I going to do?" 

Like indoor theaters, drive-ins have been operating at 50% capacity to space people out. So ticket sales in the summer, even during sell-outs, wasn't necessary off-the-charts for many locations. This fall, though, most are seeing much higher attendance than normal. Drive-ins like Tibbs have adapted to not just online ticketing and concession ordering by app but have rethought what the drive-in — so unchanged by time — can be. 

"We built our whole business on nostalgia and it's nice that we've turned a corner. We've kind of brought it into the 21st century," says Snyder. "It's been crazy and wild but we've loved every minute."

That's made drive-ins want to keep rolling as far into the cold as they can. But how long can they hold on? For Jude DeLeonardis, owner of the 700-car Delsea Drive-in, New Jersey's last remaining drive-in, the limit is "stupid cold." Before the pandemic, she had planned to close around Halloween. Now she expects to go at least to Thanksgiving.

"How far into December we can go will depend on Mother Nature and turnout," says DeLeonardis. "We would keep it going all year if we knew it wasn't going to get stupid cold and snowing."

Some drive-ins have advantages that others don't. The five-screen Ford Wyoming Drive-In just outside Detroit never closes. Their owner also runs a construction company, so they have snowplows on site. The Ford Wyoming runs from dusk to dawn, selling tickets as late as 2:30 a.m.

"I will concede the fact that we are unusual," chuckles co-owner William Clark. He judges ticket sales this October have been twice what's typical. "We never close except with the caveat if there's a 10-inch snowstorm right before the movie goes on the screen," says Clark.

Bengies Drive-In, outside Baltimore, rents electric in-car heaters. That not only keeps moviegoers warm into November, but it prevents car engines from idling. "Modern America doesn't understand carbon monoxide," says Bengies owner D. Edward Vogel. 

Echoing other drive-in owners, Vogel emphasizes that drive-ins, even though they've enjoyed having the spotlight this year, need indoor theaters to be open. Exhibitors indoor and outdoor need new movies to survive, yet the studios have largely given up on 2020.

"We're trying to protect what we call the theatrical window. And it doesn't exist right now, or rarely does it exist," say Vogel, whose drive-in touts the largest movie screen in the country. "Even the best players who were good to us before are buying into that. It makes me wonder: What is theatrical about watching a movie on your TV or your phone?"

Vogel will keep Bengies open as long as the weather holds and moviegoers keep turning up. Not that he couldn't use a break after a season unlike any other.

"I haven't seen my family since February, so I could use a little rest," said Vogel, laughing. "I'm not sure we're going to do it, but we've already had offers for New Year's."

Those drive-ins that are locking up for the season do so with the knowledge that they've never played a more vital role in their communities. Jay Mowery, owner of the Cumberland Drive-in in Newville, Pennsylvania, hosted his first wedding, along with drive-thru trick-or-treating, fundraisers and a creature-feature weekend rented by some horror fans. Halloween weekend was his last of the season, but Mowery — like others — has the feeling his drive-in might be called on for graduations and other socially-distanced events next spring.

"It's been a lot better than being closed, and it's certainly helped the community. It's given them a place to gather," says Mowery. "We put a 44-foot-long plastic shield along the snack bar. It's just high enough that we can slide a big tub of popcorn under it. I can't wait to take this thing down but now I'm thinking I might need it next year."

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