Start spreading the news… New York, the US state hardest hit by the coronavirus, has allowed drive-in theaters to re-open from this past weekend. It is one of several states to re-open drive-ins this week and brings the latest good news for a sector that has been a hot topic of discussion throughout this crisis. Drive-Ins have provided light in these dark times, both literally and figuratively, for local communities and the domestic box office alike.

Some states have now allowed the re-opening of traditional theaters, others have yet to even allow drive-ins to open. Owners in some states where drive-ins remain shuttered (such as Washington) are directly appealing to their governor to allow re-opening. New York’s classification of the sector as a low-risk outdoor recreational activity could provide further ammunition for their cause. After all, New York (which boasts the most drive-ins of any state, followed by Pennsylvania and Ohio) has accounted for 24% of all recorded cases of the virus in the US, and over 31% of deaths.

This week Gower Street is looking at what is currently happening in drive-ins across the domestic market and how we are measuring ongoing growth.

The Business

There are now over 150 drive-in theaters open across 38 US states. Even some without any permanent drive-ins are now operating pop-up venues.

Last year domestic drive-in business delivered close to $149 million; approximately 1.3% of the market’s annual box office. In the first two weeks of this month drive-in business has accounted for 80% of domestic box office.

The normal operation of drive-ins differs from state to state and location to location. For some it is a purely seasonal business, for others a year-round one. The majority of the top 10 performing drive-in theaters in 2019 were year-round operators but those with more limited periods of operation could generate bigger single-month figures.

In that annual top 10 only three saw business up year-on-year through to April 30. All three saw business hit in March but got back in the game early to generate strong April numbers. Some other top performers in the past couple of weeks, such as the 25 Drive-In Auto in Greenwood, South Carolina, are also seeing a year-on-year performance boost.

But others, such as the Stars & Stripes in Lubbock, Texas were unable to reopen until May so were more greatly impacted by April losses. To the close of April, the majority of sites had experienced year-on-year losses. The speed at which drive-ins re-open will impact overall sector losses. The first drive-in in Minnesota to re-open was the Sky Vu in Warren (May 8), but Vali Hi in Lake Elmo, which in July 2019 generated a bigger box office month than any other US top 10 drive-in that year, remains closed.

The biggest single-month box office among any of 2019’s top 10 domestic drive-ins came from the Cine-Parc St. Eustache 5 in Quebec, Canada, also in July. But that theater operates a more limited 5-6 month season with June-August generating by far the majority of business. Most of Canada’s Cine-Parcs currently remain closed, however all of those in British Columbia are back up and running and Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan saw their first re-openings this past weekend.

Some areas without a permanent drive-in have also seen pop-up sites open during this crisis. The Plaza in Atlanta, Georgia is now operating two pop-up drive-ins, enjoying sold out shows for BACK TO THE FUTURE on its launch weekend last week and repeating the trick this weekend with CLUE. In Juneau, Alaska, the owner of the Gold Town Nickelodeon took a projector from the theater and built a screen in a space provided by the city at the town yacht club, opening with the original STAR WARS.

What’s on?

The question of what to show is a big one. Some drive-in owners in states where drive-ins can and have re-opened have stated on social media that they will not do so due to lack of available new blockbuster content. Others, engaging with their audiences with promotions and via social media, are reporting vibrant business. They are achieving this off the back of programs consisting of smaller new release titles like VALLEY GIRL and HOW TO BUILD A GIRL; 2020 releases cut off in their prime like I STILL BELIEVE and BLOODSHOT; recent hits like BAD BOYS FOR LIFE and JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL; and catalog choices such as the HARRY POTTER franchise and JAWS.

Classics are proving popular in many areas. The Twilight in Langley, British Columbia, sold out all shows of its BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy screenings in advance this weekend – their second promoted “Retro Weekend”. The Misquamicut in Westerly, Rhode Island, re-opened Friday with JAWS selling out all five initial shows in under 30 minutes. Maine also saw its first drive-ins re-opening this weekend, with Prides Corner in Westbrook selling out THE WIZARD OF OZ.

This is not limited to the drive-ins. Both Mitch Roberts, CEO of Evo Entertainment Group, and Jason Ostrow, VP Development at Star Cinema Grill, have re-opened traditional theaters in Texas. Speaking on Celluloid Junkie’s CJCinemaSummit on Thursday (May 14) both named THE GOONIES as a top seller.

Of course, it’s not just classics drawing audience interest. The Milford in New Hampshire sold out double-bills of ONWARD/CALL OF THE WILD and THE INVISIBLE MAN/THE HUNT this weekend on re-opening. The Rustic Tri View in Rhode Island sold out for the same double-bills as well as TROLLS WORLD TOUR/JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL on its first weekend back, and these are just a couple of many examples seen across the market.

While reduced capacity inevitably makes sold out shows more likely it is clear audiences all over the country are keen to return. Roberts said it was “inspiring and encouraging” that his sites were seeing day-over-day growth. “The greatest return we can have is consumer confidence, and that will build over time,” said Roberts on the weekly CJCinemaSummit. “Traffic has continued to flow and grow every day. People are spreading the word.”

Many owners understand re-building that confidence is key, using promotions to encourage audiences back. This weekend saw the King Drive-In in Russellville, Alabama engage its audience with its own “retro” offering, on ticket-prices. It was just one of the drive-in theaters teaming with Amazon to screen the ‘50s-set THE VAST OF NIGHT, as well as period drama THE AERONAUTS, at a ’50s-style pricing of just 50 cents per person Friday and Saturday.

What next?

As more theaters, both drive-in and traditional, open it is vital we track what is happening. Gower Street has spoken before about its 5-stage Blueprint To Recovery, including laying out the maths behind it. This week we are introducing trackers for these stages so we can measure progress in every state, providing an informative roadmap to others.

The example donut graphs (below) show the data for Texas on Wednesday May 13. In the stage 1 donut we look at theaters open. The outer edge measures normal market share of the theaters currently open (in blue) and progress toward the 80% requirement (orange). The grey is the remaining 20%. The inner edge measures the actual number of open theaters. Here the blue section is theaters reporting; orange is minimum number of theaters required to hit 80% market share in a normal year; grey is total number of theaters in the state.

The stage 2-5 donuts measure box office targets. The donut hole shows the day (stage 2) or week (stages 3-5) goals alongside the result for the current day or week and the percentage of the target reached. The outer edge of the donut shows the current day or week percentage result. The inner edge shows the best day or week result so far. This is useful in seeing any regression as well as improvement. If you look at the stage 2 donut you can see that the results on May 13 (outer edge) were lower than the best day recorded (inner edge) since the beginning of the crisis. This is expected given mid-week business is traditionally slower than weekends and that business is currently being driven by the drive-ins, many of which do not operate 7-days. This is evident in theaters open. If these donuts were run for Saturday May 9 stage 1 would show 25 theaters reporting; if run for Friday May 15 it would show 29. This demonstrates the importance of regular updates and constant tracking.

Gower Street is following developments in the drive-in sector in every state each week in our Domestic Road To Recovery report.

If you have comments or questions about Gower Street’s charts and articles please contact us.

This article was originally published in Screendollars’ newsletter #117 (May 18, 2020).