Los Angeles has traditionally prided itself in being ahead of entertainment trends that develop around the country. But the area has been a little bit behind in at least one: the reopening of drive-in theaters during the pandemic. While other states and even surrounding counties had allowed drive-ins to resume operation, Los Angeles County had been a holdout, leaving its two after-dark theaters completely darkened.
That changed Wednesday, as the county gave the go-ahead to its drive-ins to light up screens again for the first time in two and a half months. Naturally, the two theaters affected by the edict aren’t wasting much time in firing up their digital projectors again. The Paramount Drive-In, a two-screen operation in the city of Paramount, just north of Long Beach, is back open for business this weekend. And the four-screen Vineland in the City of Industry is looking at reopening next week.
“We have targeted Tuesday to open,” says Ted Mundorff, president-COO of ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres, which has owned the venerable Vineland since 1955. “At best, it’ll be a soft opening, because there’s not going to be too much time to ramp up any big campaign. But there’s been such a great response for other drive-ins across the country that have remained open during the shutdown, while Los Angeles shut down their county drive-ins. In San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties, those drive-ins have flourished. So I would expect it’ll be one of those environments that word of mouth is going to be great and it’s going to be very quick.”
As for L.A. County lagging behind its neighbors, “personally, we weren’t lobbying, but being part of NATO and being part of California NATO, we’ve been very supportive of them talking to government and saying, ‘Hey, why’d you close down the drive-ins, especially?’ I expected actually to open (the Vineland) a couple of weeks ago; I thought it would be quicker than it is.”
“L.A. County was one of the last in the country to declare it safe enough,” says Darren Kurkowski, VP of operations for Bianchi Theatres, which owns the Paramount. “Obviously we were frustrated, but we understood. Then as others immediately around us were able to reopen, we became a lot more anxious. But yeah, I’m glad that the county saw fit to allow it. We had reached out to all of our local and county officials some time ago, just to make sure we were on their radar and explain the benefits and safety aspects of us being able to operate, saying, ‘Hey, we can do this safely; people are all in their vehicles and we can maintain it.’ But they had their criteria, which finally loosened up a little bit.”
Kurkowski said the Paramount will be operating at 50% of capacity on its two screens to allow for socio-automotive distancing, with concessions slightly modified, and attendants in the bathrooms for constant cleaning as well as keeping things uncrowded.
Both of the L.A. County drive-ins have had to sit idly while a drive-in just across the San Bernardino County line in Montclair, the four-screen Mission Tiki, has been doing record business, pulling new customers from a good distance away on L.A.’s west side, in the San Fernando Valley and all over southern California. It was the one drive-in that never shut down, and for at least a month was the one location you could legally see a movie with an audience in the entire southern half of the state. On a recent Saturday night, even with five lanes open for ticket purchases, cars were gridlocked not just out the Mission Tiki’s long driveway but out onto the street, down a couple of nearby blocks and over a railway overpass.
A little further outside the L.A. metro area, two Riverside triple-screen drive-ins, the Van Buren and Rubidoux, reopened two weekends ago, as did the South Bay in San Diego and the Skyline in Barstow.
Up the coast, the Sunset in San Luis Obispo is back open. More surprisingly and intriguingly, in the Santa Barbara area, the single-screen West Wind had shut down in April 2019 — and not, obviously, because of any pandemic, but apparently for good, for reasons unknown. Now it, too, has reopened, as the only place to see movies anywhere between southeast L.A. and the middle of the state.
If the Vineland does reopen Tuesday, that’ll leave just two drive-ins left closed in the central or southern parts of the state. The Hi-Way Drive-In in Visalia tells Variety it has plans to reopen June 5. The Smiths Ranch Drive-In in Twenty-Nine Palms has no definite plans to be back in business, but will keep its customers posted, the venue said in a Facebook post Thursday.
What sort of product to go with, in lieu of first-run releases from major studios, is a question that may be of issue more to drive-in operators than actual customers. (Fare at most drive-ins right now is a mixture of films still left over from the pre-pandemic first-run era, like “The Invisible Man” and “The Hunt,” new titles that otherwise are going straight to VOD, like “Trolls World Tour,” “Valley Girl” and IFC’s unexpected indie horror hit “The Wretched,” and the occasional revival title, like “Groundhog Day,” which is taking over a screen at the Mission Tiki this weekend.)
“From what I’ve heard from other people,” says Kurkowski, “it’s not so much the content that’s on the screen right now so much that they’re excited to get out and be entertained. When the indoors start opening, it may be a little bit different story, no one knows yet, but at drive-ins, people feel safe in their vehicles.”
At ArcLight/Pacific, company head Mundorff is getting a kick out of the the Vineland’s impending status as the only Pacific Theatres location that will be open for the foreseeable future — and the idea that an entire tri-country area may be about to hyper-focus on it. Pacific actually started as a drive-in chain in the 1950s, before their “ozoners” dwindled down to just one in the humble City of Industry.
Mundorff had only taken over as president-COO three and a half weeks before everything shut down, after coming over to ArcLight/Pacific from 17 years with the Landmark chain. But he’s well aware of Pacific’s drive-in-centric history: Before going to Landmark, “I literally worked there when it was the largest drive-in company in the world.” He even booked drive-ins for Pacific back in the day and can easily and fondly rattle off the names and locations of most of the many DIs the company had in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
In fact, while the chain isn’t ready to announce anything yet, there are plans to do something this summer on the site of what was one of Pacific’s most successful multi-screen drive-ins … something that presumably doesn’t involve anything quite so radical as knocking down the indoor multiplex that was built there in its place.
But don’t call it a throwback. Not entirely so, anyway.
“This resurgence of drive-ins, I guess it’s great because what was old is new again. So it’s funny how that continues to happen,” Mundorff says. “There’s an internal feeling that it’s a nostalgia thing. But my feeling is: It’s a new discovery. I think it’s people who’ve never been to a drive-in.”