If you’ve been home for the last ten weeks, the Memorial Day offerings at Virginia’s Family Drive-In Theatre might make you feel like someone smuggled a file into your cell–you mean I can go see a movie this weekend? Outside of my house? A film on one of the theater’s 84-foot-high screens under the stars, with the mountains in the background, well, “it’s just an experience that’s hard to beat,” says Jim Kopp, Family Drive-In’s owner.
The theater is about 85 miles from downtown DC, not far from Winchester in Stephens City. It opened its 2020 season on March 13, then closed two days later as people began to shelter at home. Theaters were among the businesses Governor Ralph Northam ordered closed on March 24, but it wasn’t totally clear whether the order applied to drive-ins, which Kopp notes are an outdoor activity that allow for social distancing as well, akin to golf courses. The Goochland Drive-In near Richmond received a message to that effect on March 31 from the governor’s Commerce and Trade office, its founder and “Chief Executive Dreamer” John Heidel tells Washingtonian. (A spokesperson for the governor did not reply to a request for comment.)
Kopp says his theater decided to wait anyway, especially as cases of Covid-19 were on the rise in the Commonwealth. Both theaters opened at the beginning of May, and business has been brisk, Kopp says, even though his theater, like Heidel’s, is operating at 50 percent capacity and allowing entrances only via online ticketing, which means Kopp gets a much better view of where his customers are coming from: a lot more from DC, Alexandria, Arlington, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s Counties than usual. Family Drive-In has closed its playground, banned socializing between vehicles, and put bags over the speakers you could previously hang on your windows. You can listen to your picture’s sound via an FM broadcast instead (and, Kopp notes, you can still overhear the pre-show music through the speakers).
Food presented another challenge: All concessions now must be ordered in advance online. Kopp trimmed the theater’s menu–sorry, no funnel cakes right now–and delayed the introduction of pizza from two new ovens. He’s operating with a little more than half his summer level of staff and can’t risk getting overwhelmed with dozens of orders arriving simultaneously. “You want to get them out quickly,” he says. Customers have overwhelmingly behaved themselves–out of about 5,000 admissions since he reopened, he reckons only two people have required “a little chat.”
Concessions, he says, are the only way theaters like his can survive–most of your ticket price goes to the studio that produced your feature. The Family Drive-In allows anyone who feels uncomfortable with the mechanics of ordering out to bring in their own food for a $10 per-car fee. Staff clean and sanitize the restrooms, though lines still develop, especially at the ladies’ room, which Kopp notes the theater is not able to expand due to a nonrenovation clause in its lease. Ticket prices for a double feature are $9 per adult and $4 for kids between 3 and 11. You can bring your dog, which may help with four-legged friends’ separation anxiety after having you to themselves all these weeks.
Kopp’s 2020 season has been further complicated by the fact that there aren’t new movies to show. The pandemic caused most studios to rip up their release schedules. Family Drive-In opened with Trolls World Tour and Onward, both of which had their planned releases complicated by coronavirus, and plans two double features for Memorial Day weekend: Despicable Me and ET on one screen and The Fast and the Furious and The Invisible Man (a “really good film,” Kopp says) on the other. Saturday tickets are already sold out.
Operating at half capacity isn’t great for the bottom line, Kopp says—though, he notes, “Even at 50 percent it’s better than getting nothing.” He shares a quote he gave CNN: “A lot of businesses are suffering, and I’m bringing folks in here, and they’re getting a chance to see movies and it’s keeping the drive-ins alive.” About that media name-drop: The Family Drive-In has been all over national media lately as states slowly begin to reopen. Kopp says he decided to replace family photos with movie memorabilia near his dining room table so his Zoom interviews look a bit more office-like.
When we spoke, he was also planning to take a call from Tribeca Enterprises, which is planning a summer film series at drive-ins across the country. He’s planning some graduations for smaller schools and opens the drive-in for a church service. “The minister gets up on the roof of the concessions stand and preaches to all the cars!” he says.
The Family Drive-In Theatre, 5890 Valley Pike, Stephens City, Virginia, 22655.