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Miss movie theaters? Here’s a solution from the early 20th century

Drive-in theaters appear to be a relic of the past. But will they find an audience because of the coronavirus pandemic?

Jade Irwin and Mason Taylor watch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” outside of Water Gardens Cinema 6, where two drive-in movie theaters are set up to accommodate social distancing due to COVID-19, in Pleasant Grove on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Thousands of movie theaters have shut their doors over the coronavirus pandemic. Government and public health experts say social distancing is a must to fight COVID-19. That has confined people to their homes or their cars.

Water Gardens Cinema 6 in Pleasant Grove saw a solution to the isolation.

Kyle Larsen, general manager of Water Gardens, and his staff were sitting in the office after they were shut down due to the coronavirus recommendations “just thinking of ideas.” They offered curbside pickup for popcorn and snacks.

Then, the idea hit like a fender bender.

The theater sprang to action, pulling out a projector and picking two different movies — “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” and “The Dark Knight” — to show to people who wanted to catch a flick.

Seven days later, Water Gardens had transformed into a drive-in movie theater.

“The community came together and helped us and we started the drive-in,” he said.

People watch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” from their vehicles outside of Water Gardens Cinema 6, where two drive-in movie theaters are set up to accommodate social distancing due to COVID-19, in Pleasant Grove on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

But Larsen doesn’t think they’ll be the lone drive-in theater to do it. He suspects other theaters will join and create makeshift drive-in theaters to bring customers back.

“It’s giving the employees opportunity to have work and have a paycheck, as well as giving the public something to do,” he said. “I think other theaters will follow. In fact, I’m sure they will.”

The past influences the present

In a lot of ways, drive-in theaters are a relic of the past. Watch any old 1950s movie, and you might see two people sitting together, watching a film from their car as a projector spits out a film on a wide screen.

But the roots of a drive-in film come from the 1910s. The first patented one opened on June 6, 1933, when Richard Hollingshead created it as a way for people who couldn’t fit in movie theater seats to still see a movie, according to the New York Film Academy.

“The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are,” he said, according to the NYFA.

The concept grew in popularity thereafter “as both a space for families to spend time with each other as well as an affordable date night option,” according to NYFA.

There were more than 4,000 drive-ins in the U.S. alone.

But drive-ins lost their luster. People bought smaller cars, which made it harder for them to enjoy the films. So the drive-in theaters changed their tone. Instead of being a place for families, they tried reaching out to the youth, using slasher and adult films to hook viewers. And then came the VCR, DVD players and Blu-Ray, which allowed people to watch any movie they wanted from their own homes.

Economically, they lost their flavor, too. Companies needed to buy large plots of land to host a theater. People didn’t show up. Companies didn’t make money. And so it goes.

Rough numbers suggest there’s now 300 drive-in theaters still operating, according to the NYFA.

But could the coronavirus make these theaters relevant again?

Jalen Fletcher asks Brock Love and Kylee Wilkerson if they ordered popcorn as they watch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” outside of Water Gardens Cinema 6, where two drive-in movie theaters are set up to accommodate social distancing due to COVID-19, in Pleasant Grove on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Jalen Fletcher asks Brock Love and Kylee Wilkerson if they ordered popcorn as they watch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” outside of Water Gardens Cinema 6, where two drive-in movie theaters are set up to accommodate social distancing due to COVID-19, in Pleasant Grove on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As I’ve explained before, movie theaters have shut their doors over the coronavirus pandemic. AMC, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark and Megaplex Theatres all closed their doors and shut down their screens to support social distancing and help flatten the curve of the pandemic.

Such a move has forced studios to release their films on digital platforms earlier than expected. For example, Universal Studios released “The Invisible Man” and “The Hunt” for rent through on-demand services weeks ahead of their conceived release date.

And it’s forced companies to slow down the release of films. Disney has halted the release of “Mulan” and “Black Widow” — two films that were expected to be the biggest Disney releases of the year. There’s no indication of when those films will hit theaters or whether or not their new release dates will push back other release dates.

It’s all up in the air.

But with the summer coming, drive-in theaters might be a solution for many of these studios. There’s a belief among experts that all films will soon be released on streaming — there’s a huge call for Disney to release “Mulan” early on Disney Plus — but drive-in theaters might offer an alternative solution.

And it seems people are interested. Drive-in theaters earned money over the last week as regular movie theaters went dark. It wasn’t a lot of money — the highest-earning theater was the Paramount Drive-In in Paramount, California, which gained $1,183, according to Deadline — but it’s a sign there might be an appetite for drive-in theaters once again. (Paramount Drive-In is now closed for the coronavirus outbreak).

Assuming, of course, they’re ready for the traffic.

Utah drive-ins

I called five drive-in movie theaters in northern Utah and not one of them had a real person answer the phone. Each of them were voice recorded messages with either showtimes or directions on how to access their websites.

One of the theaters, the Redwood Drive-In Theatre on Redwood Road in West Valley, is still closed for the winter.

The Motor Vu Theater in Tooele is another that remains closed for the season. The theater recently posted on its Facebook page that it has received several requests to open for the summer.

“Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t allow us to do that. Recent temperatures and the wet weather haven’t allowed the parking area to recover from the winter yet. Until we get some warmer, and drier, weather for about a week we won’t be able to consider opening. We are still shooting for an early May opening for the Motor Vu,” according to The Motor Vu Theater.

That presents a major issue for drive-ins now that the pandemic has hit at the turn of the season. Weather can still be chilly across the country until later in April or May. Cold, wet weather won’t help these outdoor facilities stay open, even if viewers stay in their cars throughout the duration of the film.

Jade Irwin and Mason Taylor watch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” outside of Water Gardens Cinema 6, where two drive-in movie theaters are set up to accommodate social distancing due to COVID-19, in Pleasant Grove on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Jade Irwin and Mason Taylor watch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” outside of Water Gardens Cinema 6, where two drive-in movie theaters are set up to accommodate social distancing due to COVID-19, in Pleasant Grove on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

But Water Gardens doesn’t see it as an issue. In fact, Larsen, the general manager, told the Deseret News that the theater has showings every day. They’re sold out on the weekends with 238 tickets sold and 330 total cars at a max.

One reason to host it every night? The employees.

“Obviously that’s our No. 1 goal is to make sure employees, you know, have work and then everything else comes after that,” he said. “And then it gives people an opportunity to get out of their house safely and have, you know, some time away from the coronavirus, right? From isolation. And actually give them a break.”

And that’s why Larsen expects to see more theaters offer drive-in options, especially as the pandemic continues into the summer. It’s an easy way to keep people engaged in the movie theater without sitting in a cinema.

“Because when we open back up, people are gonna love the fact that we provided something during a hard time and they support us and we’re trying to support them. So I think other theaters will follow suit for sure.”

But does this represent a change for the theater? Will the past be their future? Will Water Gardens rely on an older method of watching movies to embrace the new path forward?

Larsen isn’t sure. But he isn’t ruling it out, either.

“As far as drive-in, I mean, it’s a possibility. It’s just figuring out the logistics. We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t figured out for sure if it’s something we’re gonna do permanently or not. It’s possible.”