The Journal Gazette
Thursday, April 23, 2020 1:00 am

Drive-in theaters are facing tough season

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

Maybe there are memories of helping dad clean the windshield during the afternoon or hearing the popcorn hit the pan lid as mom prepared it before pouring it into a grocery bag. Just the anticipation of going to a drive-in movie theater was special, even if it meant children had to get into their pajamas early.

A weekend trip to a drive-in was a special treat for generations of Americans, and some are hoping it can be a relevant form of entertainment now during the battle against the spread of COVID-19.

During their 1950s peak, there were more than 5,000 drive-in theaters across the country, but according to there are fewer than 230 remaining. Indiana had 128 in 1955 but now has 19.

Allen County's first, the Fort Wayne Drive-in on Bluffton Road, opened in 1947 and was followed by the Lincolndale, the Hillcrest, the East 30 and the Sunset by 1954. The Hillcrest on Tillman Road (1987) and the East 30 (1991) were the last to close.

The only area drive-ins remaining are the Auburn-Garrett Drive-In (it opened in 1951), the Huntington Twin Drive-In (1950) and Wabash's 13-24 Drive-In (1951).

Judging by comments on social media, a trip to the drive-in seems like the perfect distraction. Social distancing can be enforced, posters suggest, if everyone remains in their vehicles.

But like everything else during this time, it's not that easy. All three area drive-ins are currently inactive as they wait out the virus.

“We love the 13-24 Drive-In and look forward to when it's open. Our first priority, however, is the safety of our guests and staff,” said Morgan Ellis, public relations and marketing coordinator of the Honeywell Foundation which operates the Wabash theater. “The Honeywell Foundation is taking all the necessary steps to follow Gov. (Eric) Holcomb's directive with an abundance of caution.

“While we're unsure of a timeline for when we'll be able to open our properties, including the Drive-In, we're remaining flexible during this time because every day comes with changes.”

Auburn-Garrett Drive-In operator Bruce Babbitt said he's been in business at that venue for more than 30 years but jokingly declines to tell his age. He's been in the business long enough to face challenges from weather, recessions, digital projectors and incredible changes in the film industry.

Drive-ins, Babbitt said, are just like any other small business right now. They are hurting and waiting to open.

But they aren't sure when that will be. The governor has already restricted movie theaters in general from opening, and no one wants to test that proclamation to see if drive-ins were not included.

Another big factor is that there are limited options as far as first-run movies being released.

Most movies have been postponed up to a year with only a few getting rescheduled dates for this year. None of those are the blockbusters that draw solid crowds to a drive-in.

“I'm no sage, but looking over the schedule late last year, 2020, I didn't think (it was) going to be as good as 2019,” Babbitt said. “But I never predicted this. I think we were kind of on the wrong side of it to begin with, but now we'll be lucky if drive-ins can salvage much of this season depending on how long we are closed.”

Babbitt's drive-in usually begins its season the first weekend of April. But even if area drive-ins can open by June 1, Babbitt said, they have already lost a third of the season, and by July 1, they'll have already lost half the season, including the best part. 

And, no, drive-ins cannot just pull out a DVD and throw a movie up on the screen. They have to pay for the rights to anything they use. Everything is rented on a percentage of every ticket sold.

“It's not like if you open a pizza shop, you can get your ingredients anywhere,” he said. “We are at the mercy of Hollywood and the film distributors. They make the final call as to what we can play and when.”

Another challenge will be how to enforce social distancing guidelines and what it could cost to hire extra staff to enforce them. If only one person is permitted into a bathroom, how long would the lines be? What would concession stand lines look like? How much money would the drive-ins make if they sold only half their capacity to make sure vehicles have the required space between them?

Babbitt said he knows of some drive-ins, including one near Indianapolis, which did open for a recent weekend. The social media reaction was mixed. Some people were happy with the results, but some accused the owners of flaunting the new norms.

Those are all things drive-in operators have to consider, and that's even before their insurance company or the local health departments have their say on what can and can't be done.

“After reading certain stories, I'm getting the impression that even when this whole thing is lifted and they open the door to the cage and let all of us out, I think a lot of us are going to be gun shy,” Babbitt said. “A lot of us are going to think twice about going to a theater, a sporting event or a concert in the short term. There's a lot of things to think about.”

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