Are Drive-Ins Now the New Norm?

Posted on October 6, 2020 by Carm McCormick

Are Drive-Ins Now the New Norm?

Posted on October 6, 2020 by Carm McCormick

Social distancing has welcomed back an unexpected blast from the past: the return of the drive-in.

While many modern movie theatre chains have remained closed or extremely limited in operations, the drive-in movie is serving up the perfect recipe: safely distanced and personalized seating, access to refreshments, and entertainment at a time where it’s needed most. 

With this resurgence in nostalgia, two bigger questions come to mind:

How can drive-in theatres go above and beyond the call of entertainment to fill current, more pressing needs?

And more importantly, what can smaller retailers do to follow the lead of the drive-in theater?

How drive-in theaters are adapting to the new normal

Though much fewer in number than they were 50 years ago, the drive-in theatre concept hasn’t gone completely dark. Of the dozens that remain, many of them are finding a new purpose during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people are seeking ways to entertain themselves while distancing from others. 

Though typically considered old-school and stuck in a by-gone era, drive-ins are evolving in the technology they use and the way in which they reach new audiences ― both of which are proving essential in the current COVID landscape. 

For example, there’s no box office to speak of, and no sitting in line to buy tickets. Rather, guests go through an online ticket purchase process that charges by the carload. Tickets are limited to the number of parking spaces, but many drive-in owners reveal that keeping a full “house” hasn’t been an issue. In fact, for many theaters, tickets are being sold out in minutes. 

Theaters aren’t just showing the basic classic films, either. Many are actively working with major studios to bring current or recent blockbusters to the drive-in screen. Many major motion pictures’ release dates have been delayed this year due to massive theatre closures throughout North America, so working with drive-ins gives studios an extra opportunity to generate revenue.

Despite the physical distance between cars, though, many theater owners have said it hasn’t been an effortless venture to operate during COVID. For example, many refreshment stands and canteens have had to be rethought to maintain a safe distance between hungry patrons. 

One-way directions have simplified the process for both guests and staff, as well as the introduction of pagers that allow patrons to wait in their cars until their snacks and drinks are ready. Many theaters have also reported beefing up their staff to cater to the packed-out parking lots, specifically in terms of parking lot cleanup, ongoing restroom maintenance, and longer lines at the concessions. 

So far, the response from the public has been exceptional. Lockdown mandates began spreading throughout the U.S. and Canada as early as March, and while many restrictions have been lifted, many entertainment venues and options remain off the table. People are more wary of venturing out in public by choice and are actively looking for ways to restore a feeling of normalcy. 

For many drive-in goers, it’s not just about what’s playing on the screen, but rather the opportunities it brings. People are eager to get together with friends or family, reconnect with the world, and temporarily forget the period they spent in lockdown.  

Creativity is the name of the business survival game

Though some may argue that drive-ins aren’t technically essential business, that hasn’t slowed down theater owners from planning on how to be of service during this time of need. For many, this has meant going above and beyond the normal call of duty of delivering feature films. 

For example, some drive-in theaters in the U.S. have offered their spaces to local churches for drive-in sermons on Sundays. As many churches were also forced to temporarily close their doors, this new Sunday morning normal was a much-welcome solution. 

Other drive-ins are also offering their space for high school graduations, meetings, events, and more. One theatre in New York has also gone on record to say they were opening their space for comedy shows, documentary shoots, and other live events. 

With a large outdoor space, plenty of parking, and all the technology guests and hosts need to deliver a message, it only makes sense that drive-ins have learned to pivot in a time where they’re most needed. 

And even though many drive-in theater owners don’t expect the buzz to continue forever, they’re thankful for the opportunity to bring the classic movie-going experience to a generation who may have never otherwise experienced it. 

Can retailers benefit from the revival of the drive-in? 

It’s worth mentioning that the growing interest in drive-in movies isn’t just for existing, bona fide theatres. In fact, many retailers like Walmart have started to transform their own large parking lots into makeshift theatres to capitalize on the trend and add revenue to their bottom line, and smaller retailers can follow suit. 

In this case, retailers are moving giant inflatable movie screens into the parking lot and inviting food truck vendors to set up shop. Guests can have their pick from a variety of snacks, meals, and beverages without the retailer having to figure out the costs and logistics on their own or ordering extra inventory. Plus, they stand to benefit from the extra foot traffic that the movie events bring. 

Or, there’s always the option of offering your own refreshments to add revenue to your bottom line. Offering car-side service is an excellent way to help guests maintain social distancing and provide convenience. 

There’s no doubt that retailers have had to get creative during the coronavirus pandemic, and offering your own version of a drive-in theatre is just one example of this. But even if you don’t have a massive parking or other means to recreate the drive-in experience, retailers of all sizes can look at how theatres are pivoting and adapt their own strategy. 

For example, Bow & Arrow Brewing Co has lost a significant chunk of their revenue due to the forced closure of their taproom. In response, they set to work in creating a virtual taproom experience while offering brews to-go, online beer ordering, and a new line of candy to generate more revenue. Their outdoor patio has also opened for business and brings in food trucks on certain days of the week.

Other retailers are also expanding their product offerings to include in-demand items like masks and hand sanitizers. Curbside service, online ordering, and virtual events are also surging in popularity. 

And just like the convenience and creativity drive-in theatres are offering, new services that fill an important need aren’t likely to go unnoticed.


At the end of the day, seeing how drive-in theatres are continuing to thrive all comes down to serving the community. For many, the drive-in is viewed as an essential service because it gives guests a safe way to escape from the stress and pressures the new normal has created. It’s a creative entertainment outlet to its core, and people are attracted to it because of the need it fills and the joy it brings. There’s no doubt that smaller retailers can find their own ways to serve their communities to the same degree. And, if you’re looking for new ways to refresh your retail locations to better serve your communities of customers, contact us today to discover how we can help.