Drive-in theaters have been a part of the moviegoing landscape for 100 years, but current events have shifted them from a minor, seasonal player in the movie industry to the best game in town.
After delays, the sprawling Vali-Hi in Lake Elmo finally opened last week, but other drive-ins have been popping corn since mid-May, with rules in place to protect staff and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as filling lots to only 50% capacity to make physical distancing possible.
The wide-open outdoor spaces of drive-in theaters have lately attracted non-movie events, rented out by day for graduations, church events and corporate meetings. Some have staged concerts. But the real business of drive-ins begins at dusk.
“The nice thing is everybody knows what to do and does what we ask,” said Dave Quincer, owner of the Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield, one of two classic drive-ins in Minnesota still using signage from the 1950s (the other is the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie). “They’re parking where we need them to park, observing the social distancing marks on the floor, following signs and doing what they’re supposed to do.”
In a textbook chicken-or-egg situation, studios have hesitated to release new movies until they’re confident multiplexes will be widely open — Warner Bros. just moved the highly touted “Tenet” from July 17 to July 31 — but theater owners, who gradually began reopening last weekend, are reluctant to do so with no movies to play. And questions linger about the pandemic.
So operators of outdoor theaters have gotten creative. Some are screening recent-ish blockbusters (Vali-Hi will have “Jurassic World” and “Jumanji: The Next Level” this weekend). Others are showing pre-pandemic releases that still have some life in them: Pixar’s “Onward” and Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild” have popped up a lot.
The Starlite has played those movies, but it has two screens, and one has been devoted to vintage titles such as “Grease” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” This weekend offers maybe the splashiest retro bill, pairing classics that seem made for giant outdoor screens: “Jaws,” which marks its 45th anniversary this weekend, and the original “Jurassic Park,” which celebrated its 27th anniversary last week. “Jaws” will also chomp on swimmers at the Sky-Vu in Warren, Minn.
Response has been good. Quincer said the fact that people are heading out to see movies they could stream at home suggests that, when it’s safe, customers will be eager to return to theaters.
“People want to be out of the house. To me, that says something. The message Hollywood should be getting is, even though we can sit at home and watch movies on our TVs, we still want to get out. We still want to be with people,” said Quincer, adding, “There are a lot of reasons people want to go to the movies.”
If you’re contemplating a trip to the drive-in, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Where to go
Minnesota has six drive-in theaters. In the Twin Cities metro area, the Vali-Hi in Lake Elmo has room for about 375 cars at half capacity. In summers past, though, the Vali-Hi has sold out frequently, with cars lined up long before showtime. Other options include the Starlite in Litchfield, which Quincer said has been doing great business but has not sold out its 250 spaces so far; and Elko Speedway in Elko New Market, which shows a single movie on weekend evenings rather than the standard double- or triple-feature. The Starlite is about a 90-minute drive from Minneapolis but the Elko, which has “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Terminator: Dark Fate” this weekend, is just over 30 minutes. (The others, in Warren, Luverne and Long Prairie, are heftier road trips.)
What to bring
Some drive-ins initially required customers to stay in their cars, but that has loosened. Familiar practices such as reversing your pickup and lying in the flatbed or using folding chairs are still allowed, but chairs are not allowed on the sides of vehicles, to ensure physical distancing. It’s also a good idea to bring a portable radio to pick up the sound, so you don’t have to leave your car radio on. Some theaters have a limited number of radios available, or you may be able to pick up the signal on your phone.
The show goes on, rain or shine, and starts around dusk, about 9:30 p.m. this time of year. But some things have changed, so it’s wise to visit the website of the theater you plan to attend. The rules are similar at most venues — mask use is encouraged, wash your hands frequently, stay six feet apart — but some have additional requirements. The Vali-Hi, for instance, allows only one person per car to visit the concession stand and does not accept credit cards, whereas the Elko stand only accepts cards. The Sky-Vu in Warren has a military discount (even at full price, drive-in tickets are generally cheaper than multiplex tickets). The Starlite and other theaters have installed signage to keep restrooms and concession stands more safe.
Many arts institutions are getting inventive with events that take advantage of the relative safety of staging events outdoors with social distancing. Crooners in Fridley is doing drive-in concerts. New Dawn Theatre’s free screenings of “A Breath for George” continue this weekend at Pillsbury House and Yellow Tree theaters, collecting poems, interviews and songs honoring the memory of George Floyd. Franconia Sculpture Park near Taylors Falls is doing a monthly series of outdoor films, including “Fantastic Fungi” on July 18. Many Twin Cities parks and arts groups host outdoor movie nights but have not announced plans because of COVID-19. Keep your eyes peeled to see if they’re scheduled as summer picks up steam.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367