Drive-Ins and Virtual Cinema: A Tale Of Two Movie Experiences

A masked Jeff Belter delivers a big bag of popcorn and drinks to a "Curbside Concessions" customer
The Capitol Theater's Jeff Belter delivers some "Curbside Concessions." [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
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Many film fans are anxiously awaiting the day they can return to the multiplex and the immersive grandeur of the big screen. Until then, some Northeast Ohio theaters are working to simulate the traditional movie-going experience. 

When Gov. Mike DeWine shut movie theaters down in mid-March, due to coronavirus precautions, the six-theater Cleveland Cinemas chain found another way to show new films.

“I cannot believe how quickly it all came together,” said Dave Huffman, director of marketing.

Some of the smaller film distributors started offering foreign and quirky independent titles as in home, video-on-demand. The only way to see them was through your local movie theater. Since March, about 45 films have played in what they’re calling the “Virtual Screening Room.”

It's not anything comparable to movie ticket sales, by any means,” Huffman said. “Of course, any chance to, you know, put a few dollars in the coffer, you know we're not going to pass that up right now.”

"Lucky Grandma" is one of the selections in the Virtual Screening Room [Good Deed Entertainment]

And to make the experience a little less virtual, Huffman said you can pre-order a bag of popcorn, some candy, even a couple of beers to pick-up at the theater through their Curbside Concessions program. He said the first week they offered the take-home popcorn, they were expecting maybe a hundred people to stop by, but they ended up with nearly 200 orders.

But, if real movie popcorn doesn’t satisfy your hunger for an old-school film experience, it is possible to join a live crowd and go to a big screen movie – at a drive-in theater.

North Ridgeville's Aut-O-Rama has sold-out weekend shows in recent weeks, although attendance is held to 50% capacity [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Yes, drive-in movies still exist. In fact, Ohio is home to 24 drive-in theaters. North Ridgeville’s Aut-O-Rama Drive-In has screened thousands of films under the stars since the Sherman family opened it in 1965. You might think that audiences in a drive-in would inherently be socially distant, but Deb Sherman said, actually, the opposite is true.

“People don't just come here and sit in the cars normally and watch the movie,” she said. “They'll visit with the people, park next to them or they'll meet a bunch of their friends here. And, you know, they'll hang out together till the movie starts. And so that's kind of, you know, been put on hold.”

Cars are spaced further apart and visitors are discouraged from congregating [David C. Barnett / ideastream] 

Sherman said her films have been selling out the past couple weekends, though she’s holding attendance to 50% capacity. And everyone is asked to maintain six-feet of distance when hitting the concession stands and bathrooms. On her screens, she’s running the remaining available films that were produced before the pandemic, and holding out hopes for a highly anticipated new one due in mid-July, director Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”

 

The movie industry is buzzing about the potential of this science fiction thriller to bring audiences back to the theaters, be they in the multiplexes or on big screens under the stars. Both Sherman and Dave Huffman say the film will play at their respective theaters, whenever it's released.

Of course, that depends on governors across the country giving the okay for theaters to reopen and whether the customers feel it’s safe to go. Deb Sherman thinks there’s some healing in keeping old traditions alive.

“It's just good to be open and try and give people a little bit of a break from all that stuff going on,” she said. “And hopefully they feel a little more like normal when they leave at the end of the night.”

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