Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Old-fashioned drive-ins are this year’s new entertainment

Area locations try to serve their new fans

Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published June 11, 2020

If someone predicted a year ago that 2020 would be “The Year of the Drive-In Theater,” you would have called them crazy.

In 2019, drive-in theaters were considered passé. In 2019, drive-in theaters were struggling to stay relevant and financially viable in a world defined by streaming entertainment and multiplex recliners.

In 2020, drive-ins are being called upon to do nothing less than save 2020. Thanks to COVID-19, drive-in theaters may be the only place to safely enjoy movies and music this summer.

Needed: New movies

One of the challenges for theater owners like Bruce Babbitt is lack of product.

Hollywood has postponed many of its spring and summer releases. But Babbitt is no neophyte. There may be no one in the area who knows more about the movie exhibition business than Babbitt.

He first started working as a theater projectionist at 17. He purchased his first movie theater in 1974 when he was 21.

At Babbitt’s Auburn-Garrett Drive-In, business has been brisk in 2020, despite strict COVID-19 safety protocols being enforced.

When Whatzup spoke with him, Babbitt was filling his screen with family films from late 2019 and early 2020 like Trolls: World Tour, Sonic the Hedgehog, Call of the Wild, and Jumanji: The Next Level.

INdependent studios jump in

If this is the summer of the drive-in theaters, it is also the summer of the independents.

With major studios taking a breather, independent studios and independent film distributors are seizing the day.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, the Van-Del Drive-In in Van Wert, Ohio, showed three recent independent horror films.

The problem with independent films is that they are not pre-sold to the ticket-buying public via gargantuan ad campaigns. Moviegoers must take a chance.

Moviegoing and exhibition in these strange times is all about taking chances, said Callan Bauer, vice president of operations for Saunders Theater Properties.

Saunders Theater Properties owns three drive-in theaters in Ohio, including the Val-Del.

Bauer said the all-night independent horror film marathon was well-received but was not as successful as typical summer movie fare would have been.

“We are still happy with the turnout and people really seemed to enjoy the movies,” Bauer said. “We are definitely looking at doing more independent film and other options that we normally wouldn’t put on the screen.”

Drive-in theaters across the country have been forced it get creative, Babbitt said.

“I think one drive-in showed all of the Harry Potter movies, two a night, four nights in a row,” he said. “That’s pretty crazy. A drive-in in Indiana offered the following triple feature: Shrek, The Wizard of Oz, and Rambo. Isn’t that crazy? They’re just doing anything to put something on the screen.”

Babbitt said he is looking to exhibit some retro movies, but there are challenges. Disney is stingy with its classics, which now include the entire Fox film library.

And streaming has made classic Hollywood films so instantly accessible that the novelty of seeing them on the big screen has lost some of its oomph.

Classic movies — and music

The 13-24 Drive-In in Wabash is offering a Thursday night classic movie series called Retro Reels, according to Tod Minnich, president and CEO of the Honeywell Foundation.

The Honeywell Foundation manages the theater for the owner, Inguard Insurance of Wabash.

Retro Reel movies exhibited thus far include Footloose and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

13-24 Drive-In fans can vote on future retro selections on the theater’s website.

Minnich said the theater plans to offer free live music on Wednesdays from regional bands.

Perhaps the biggest surprise from our conversation with Minnich is the news that the theater will soon play host to concerts from national touring acts as well.

“We have offers out for headline acts,” he said. “Depending on the acts that are out there, we will do them as often as we possibly can book acts that make sense for us. We would hope to do a lot of it, but there’s not a lot of people talking about touring right now.”

Live music promotors and managers are concerned about how well theaters are going to protect concertgoers and concert givers, Minnich said.

“They’re not putting their fans and their bands in situations that would be awkward and would expose liability,” he said.

The 13-24 Drive-In has some stringent safety protocols in place, Minnich said, and is allowing moviegoers the opportunity to order food from the concession stand ahead of time and pick it up as they enter the theater property.

They will soon have a smart phone app available to them to facilitate this process, he said.

Minnich said Inguard plans to have a mobile pizza oven on site some nights to provide patrons with gourmet pizzas.

Babbitt and Bauer said they may soon be offering exclusive prerecorded concerts from national acts.

“We were told that there is a promotional company out there that is trying to put together a series of concerts on hard drives just for drive-ins,” Babbitt said.

“I don’t want to talk about it too much,” Bauer said. “I can say there will be drive-in concerts here soon and it will be very cool.”

Renting out the facility

One of the most ingenuous ways the 13-24 Drive-In has rushed in where indoor venues fear to tread is by offering itself as an event rental facility.

“We’re offering the theater for rent during the week for events people have had to cancel,” Bauer said. “I sat the owners down at the beginning of the season and said, ‘We’re going to have a lot of requests. We need to figure something out for rentals.’

“We’ve done graduations,” she said. “We’re doing dance recitals where the company prerecords the dancing and we show it on the big screen.”

In some cases, speeches from valedictorians and salutatorians were prerecorded and shown on one of the theater’s three-screens, Bauer said.

The earliest summer blockbuster still on the schedule is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It is scheduled to be released in theaters on July 17, but many pundits predict that the film will still be delayed. The website IndieWire noted recently that the film’s newest trailer lacked a release date.

For the time being, Hoosier fans of films and bands will be counting on the creativity of drive-in theater owners and managers to carry them through the summer.

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