Honk if you love cinema: How drive-in theatres are coping with COVID-19

By | June 19, 2020

Drive-in theatres in rural communities across Canada have been filling the void as traditional cinemas remain closed. But they’ve also been fielding requests for more than movies.

“About a week and a half ago, a local church reached out to me and the question was, is it possible to do a drive-in church on a Sunday morning?” said Bob Boyle, who runs the Brackley Drive-In in Brackley Beach, P.E.I.

Brackley Drive-In reopened in late May, after pandemic lockdown restrictions loosened.

While it’s only been open for a few weeks now, Boyle says he’s been approached by organizers hoping to use their open-air environment for events like church services, weddings and concerts — the kinds of public gatherings that largely remain off-limits.

Boyle says he hasn’t yet held any non-movie-related events at Brackley Drive-In, but he’s in talks with several parties to make plans that ensure those events can proceed while maintaining physical distancing guidelines.

Bob Boyle, owner of the Brackley Drive-In, says the number of spots available have been halved to encourage physical distancing. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

Dustin Abbott, pastor at the Emmanuel Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Pembroke, Ont., has been holding outdoor services at his local drive-in for several weeks.

He’s had to adjust his preaching style since it’s harder to elicit a direct reaction when there are windshields and headlights between him and his attendees.

“We just have moments where instead of saying Amen, people just start honking their horns. I think the ‘Honk if you love Jesus’ thing has been overused a little bit,” he said.

“I guess somebody probably laughed at that. Maybe no-one laughed at it, because I couldn’t hear them.”

A church service held at a drive-in theatre lot for the Emmanuel Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Pembroke, Ont. The church also streams and records their services on their Facebook page. (Emmanuel Lighthouse UPC/Facebook)

Abbott and his congregation are returning to their regular church this weekend, after the Ontario government allowed places of worship in most of the province to reopen with a 30-per-cent capacity limit.

“We’re all obviously really looking forward to being back in an in-person service. But I suspect we’ll also look back at this period in the future and probably remember it fondly as something unique and special as a part of our church’s history,” said Abbott.

Retro nights

As for the movies themselves, Boyle says the theatre’s instituted several new rules to accommodate physical distancing for visitors, including cutting the number of vehicles allowed in half.

While the movies play, audio will be played through the radio rather than over the speakers, to encourage patrons to stay inside their vehicles.

And the concession stands have markers on the floor to avoid crowded lineups, as well as a limited number of food items available to help accelerate service so customers can get back to their cars as soon as possible.

In a move echoing the retro appeal of drive-ins, Boyle hopes to have his staff act as carhops, fielding orders from patrons via a phone app in their cars and delivering their food and drinks.

Boyle pulls the protective plastic off the snack bar’s new barriers installed to keep staff safe. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

Dawn Hlady, co-owner of the Big Island Drive-In in Flin Flon, Man., says the pandemic has pushed the business to move away from some of its old-fashioned habits.

“We really had to bring in a lot of technology this year. We were a cash-only site since 1957. So just bringing in the Wi-Fi, the debit machines, the mobile ordering system … was really stressful the first night just because that was completely new,” she said.

“But on the flip side, it was completely amazing to be open. The gratitude coming from customers of just having something to do — they were just so happy to be there.”

Grease plays at the Big Island Drive-In in Flin Flon, Man. Co-owner Dawn Hlady says the theatre has been playing more retro movies lately because major Hollywood releases have been delayed by the pandemic. (Submitted by Dawn Hlady)

Both Boyle and Hlady have scrambled to develop programs for movie nights, since Hollywood movie releases have slowed to a trickle during the pandemic. It’s led them to turn to the classics vault more often than normal.

“This past weekend, we played Jurassic Park. [Our theatre is] surrounded by forests,” said Boyle.

“There’s one scene in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex is just coming up through the woods, and it really envelops you in the drive-in moment.”

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Annie Bender.

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