COVID-19 has changed spending habits for thousands of Arkansans, and one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic is movie theaters. Big chains like AMC Theatres and Cinemark have been closed for months. But one retro alternative is getting more consideration among customers who want to leave their home to catch a movie on the big screen.
Arkansas is home to three drive-in theaters. Fayetteville has the 112 Drive-In, there’s the Stone Drive-In Theatre in Mountain View, and the Kenda Drive-In is in Marshall.
The 112 Drive-In is celebrating its 40th season, having opened in 1980. It’s a family-owned business, according to Janie Dunn-Rankin with the 112 Drive-In.
Dunn-Rankin said her family has owned drive-in theaters in the area since 1950. The 112 Drive-In is the last one remaining. But the family does have an employee that started with them in 1950 and still works with the company to this day in an advisory role.
When the 112 Drive-In opened for its current season in May, Dunn-Rankin said crowds showed up.
“We have seen increased attendance as after sheltering in place for so long everyone has longed to get out of their homes, and a safe way to do that is at the drive-in by either staying in your own vehicle or sitting outside at a safe social distance from others,” she said.
To keep customers safe, the 112 Drive-In set up tents just outside its concession building for outside ordering. And pick up is on a different side of the building. This way, instead of the cafeteria style line outside the concession stand the theater used to have, customers can now keep a safe distance while buying snacks.
“All of our employees for concession and box office sales are behind protective shields and wearing gloves at all times. Our outside parking attendants are instructed to keep a minimum of six feet distance,” Dunn-Rankin said.
The theater is also doing extra restroom cleaning and has added hand sanitizer stations. On top of that, posted signs show where patrons are allowed to sit outside their vehicles, keeping at least six feet from neighboring customers.
Perhaps the biggest change at the 112 Drive-In is the addition of debit and credit card payments. The business previously was cash only.
Dunn-Rankin said more customers have been asking about renting the facility.
“We love bringing movies to the largest outdoor screen in Northwest Arkansas and are proud to be one of the three in the state, and one of 305 drive-ins left in the country,” she said.
Jacob Hiatt is a scholarship coordinator at the University of Arkansas. Before the pandemic started, Hiatt said he would go to a drive-in theater twice a year, usually with friends.
“Since the pandemic, I’ve been once with my roommates, but I see myself going back,” he said.
The scholarship coordinator said he feels like drive-in theaters are a safer alternative to traditional theaters for the most part.
As for what drive-in theaters can do to make Hiatt feel safer, he said, “It would be nice if they could figure out some way to continue to offer concessions in a fashion that better supports physical distancing for the full experience.”
Hiatt added he’s still happy to go and support them in any case.
Holly Jones is one of the owners of the Stone Drive-In Theatre. Jones said her grandfather built the theater in 1965, and her father took over in the 1970s. Now Jones and her siblings run the business.
“Our drive-in has been open every year since its beginning. We show movies from around the 1st of March to the end of October or so,” Jones said.
Attendance is lower, but Jones said she attributes that to there not being any new movies to show. The theater is showing old movies, and staff are working on remodeling.
“Most customers this year are new customers, many new faces. Many of our regulars that I’ve talked to are still not going out much or feel scared to come,” Jones said.
The pandemic has brought some changes to her family’s business, according to Jones. Online ticketing has been made available.
“Even though it’s expensive to process a credit card for a $5 ticket, we have made online tickets available, so that if a customer wishes, they can buy online, and hand us a paper ticket. [They can] even hold it up to the window without even opening it,” she said.
The concession stand only offers pre-packaged foods, and bathrooms are cleaned more frequently, the co-owner said.
But one of the biggest changes at the theater has been the ability to host virtual concerts.
“That never would have happened if it were not for the idea of social distancing,” Jones said.
Adrien Vanlandingham is an artist in Little Rock, said he has fond memories of going to drive-in summer movies as a teenager with his father’s family. “I would love to see more of them,” he said.
Given the choice between a traditional theater and a drive-in theater, Vanlandingham said he would pick the latter. “I honestly prefer the drive-in theater experience over traditional theaters,” he said.
In fact, Vanlandingham said he thinks now would be a perfect time to launch a drive-in theater since the pandemic is going on, and watching a movie outdoors is safer.
“I would feel much safer and be more likely to buy a movie ticket if it could be watched in the safety of my own car instead of sitting next to strangers in a crowded theater,” the artist said.
Malco Theatres recently started reopening some of its Arkansas locations, with AMC and Cinemark to follow later in July. How reopened traditional theaters will fare against drive-in competition during the pandemic remains to be seen.