Audiences across Nebraska are turning to drive-in movie theaters as a source of entertainment and community amidst COVID-19 restrictions.
As indoor theaters around the nation have closed temporarily, drive-in theaters have adapted to social distancing guidelines to continue offering a venue for moviegoers. Following orders from the state’s Directed Health Measures, most have been operating at half capacity and implementing safety procedures for both employees and customers.
Lia Heckert, manager of the TK/Starlight Drive-In in Neligh, said she requires employees to wear masks when interacting with customers, and the drive-in can no longer allow customers into the concessions stand.
Sandhills Drive In Owner Edison Red Nest III said he is taking similar measures by offering contactless payment, sanitizing restrooms frequently, and asking customers and employees to stay 6 feet apart.
Self-proclaimed movie superfan Jeff Ernster of Laramie, Wyoming, has visited drive-ins 54 times so far this year, including venues in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. He said that while procedures vary by county, drive-ins as a whole are doing a good job implementing health and safety guidelines.
“Every county does it different, you know. Like the Sandhills, I think they do a wonderful job there. Everybody kind of keeps their distance,” Ernster said.
Although some theaters such as the TK/Starlight Drive-In saw an initial spike in the number of audience members this season, the reopening of businesses and resumption of activities has taken a toll.
“The first two or three weeks of June, I think we had a lot of people simply because they wanted something to do. Because of COVID, they couldn’t do anything else. Now that there’s baseball and softball again, there’s more other things to do and your families are busy,” Heckert said.
A lack of new movies has also created a challenge for drive-ins, as most studios have pushed back the release of summer blockbusters. Many drive-in owners have begun showing modern classics, such as “Grease”, “Star Wars” and “Ghostbusters.” Red Nest III said he’s looking forward to seeing families come together for special events at the Sandhills Drive In, such as Christmas in July, themed costume contests, and an October horror movie series.
Drive-ins have also been offering viewers a chance to take part in a summer concert-going experience. Artists such as Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton have filmed concerts to air exclusively at drive-ins around the country. Tickets for the Garth Brooks event on June 27 sold out quickly and brought in a great deal of revenue, Heckert said.
Indoor theater owners have also taken an interest in drive-ins, as many indoor venues are currently open at half capacity or may be unable to seat audiences at all.
Billy Estes, executive director of The Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff, said the nonprofit theater has recently opened up a location the SkyView Drive-In and received a tremendous response.
“We were really looking for a way to continue to serve our community. We’re a nonprofit, community-based theater and performing arts group. Movies are a big part of our business,” Estes said.
For many theaters around the state, temporary drive-ins have created new competition for the summer season. Heckert said a large part of her audience travels from Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, and Fremont to visit the TK/Starlight Drive-In. She said the temporary drive-ins may require less travel for customers as they pop up closer to metropolitan areas.
“If I’m going to go to a drive-in and see an old movie, I’d rather see one nearby than drive three hours,” Heckert said.
Red Nest III said that aspects such as original speakers, parking ramps, and concession stands give customers an authentic drive-in experience.
“Anyone can put up a screen and project the movie up on a screen and call it a drive-in theater. But there are certain things there that make a drive-in theater a real drive-in movie theater,” Red Nest III said.
Estes said he thinks it’s unlikely that the Midwest SkyView would be directly competing for patrons with other drive-ins. Although The Midwest Theater originally established a pop-up drive-in, Estes said the theater has taken steps to establish SkyView Drive-in as a venue for years to come.
“We’ve put down some pretty firm roots. We plan to operate for a couple of summers you know, as long as the demand and desire to come out and see movies exists,” Estes said.
Ernster, who plans to visit many more drive-ins by the end of the year, said he doesn’t have an issue with indoor theaters creating pop-ups, as long as they pay rights for the films they show. He said his concern is that viewers may go to temporary pop-up drive-in locations such as Walmart (160 locations are having a summer drive-in series) where they may not get to have the true drive-in experience. Ernster said he thinks everyone needs to try taking a trip to a drive-in at least once.
“People need to explore that a little more. I think if they did, they’ll find, you know, a whole different thing, a whole different culture,” Ernster said.