Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Drive-in movies: Back for the future?

April 12, 2021

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The pandemic’s impact on movie theaters has created a path towards resurgence for drive-in theaters. (Photo via pixabay.com)

For obvious reasons related to the pandemic, drive-in movie theaters started popping up all over the country. The concept of the drive-in fit well within the pandemic as people didn’t have to face the immediate fear of virus spread. Since movie theaters were closed during the height of the pandemic, going to a drive-in allowed people to break up the monotony of staying at home.

Now that the pandemic has continued, some theaters may never reopen their doors, or are at least preparing for a prolonged postponement. This has cracked open the door for drive-ins to have a sustained resurgence and become permanent, providing a couple of areas that business journalists can examine when reporting on the movie industry.

The first area to look at is the developers of drive-in locations. What goes into their decision making when deciding to open up a new location? One of the main starting points is real estate, as there needs to be a significant amount of land available for a drive-in operate.

This is one of the reasons that drive-ins died out in the past. Real estate developers saw that the land that drive-ins were on was often too valuable to not be used during the day, so they were sold off. Has that thinking changed and allowed for an environment where drive-ins could be built again? Another question to ask when considering location is how does weather play a factor? Do drive-ins pop up more often in warmer weather states rather than colder ones?

Additionally, journalists should look at the customer perspective. After the novelty of drive-ins wears off, what entices people to be consistent customers, especially in a time when streaming services have become more powerful? Streaming services’ impact on the movie business is something that the Reynolds Center looked at in January. Why not watch just watch movies at home? It is important to explore ways that drive-ins are attracting and keeping customers. 

Looking at how drive-ins are shaping experiences is an important place to start. While one can watch a movie on their phone or in the comfort of their living room, it does not compare to the experience of a drive-in. What are some strategies that drive-ins are using to make going to a drive-in an event? For example, some Milwaukee-area drive-ins got creative and considered designing events around the different holiday seasons, while others have created events around highlighting local attractions, like food vendors and performers. 

Lastly, business journalists should think about looking into the demographics of drive-in audiences. Examining something like the percentage of the audience that falls into each age group could be helpful. If there is a good amount of young people going to drive-ins right now it could forecast a healthy demand for drive-ins going into the future.

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