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The return of drive-in movie theaters

The coronavirus pandemic opened a window of opportunity for the nostalgic pastime.

TAMPA, Fla. — Cities and towns all across the United States are allowing businesses to reopen their doors with the understanding they adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

Restaurants, beauty salons, small and large businesses all have to readjust to help keep customers safe. Indoor movie theaters, on the other hand, will face some challenges when it comes to keeping moviegoers six feet apart.

The indoor movie theater industry always had its ups and downs, but since the pandemic, stocks of three major movie companies, AMC, Cinemark, and Cineworld, took a hit. Bad news for indoor movie theaters but good news for drive-in movie theaters.

“I'm getting calls and emails almost every day from people wanting to know how to open a drive-in,” says Nick Hensgen, of DriveInMovie.com.

The last two weeks, we've definitely noticed an uptick. We've noticed a lot of younger folks at our Silver Moon location with our retro movies,” says Chip Sawyer, who operates two drive-in movie theaters in Florida.

Most drive-in movie theaters sell their tickets online. Moviegoers are able to save tickets to their mobile devices and when they get to the gate, all they have to do is show the attendant their ticket for them to scan.

“You literally never have to get out of your own car, and that's an environment you can control,” says Hensgen.

Just like indoor movie theaters, drive-ins have seen their fair share of ups and downs. The first drive-in movie theater opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J. Drive-ins had a great run well into the late 1950s. 

In 1963, there were nearly 3,500 drive-ins throughout the United States. The industry started to lose its appeal when televisions and multiplex movie theaters entered the scene. 

Today, there are about 330 drive-in movie theaters in the U.S. 

As the world continues to deal with the coronavirus, there’s no telling when people will feel comfortable enough to attend an indoor movie theater. To help fill the void, cities across the U.S. are starting to bring movies to the outdoors. The New York City-based MASC Hospitality Group will host a drive-in movie event near Yankee Stadium, in the Bronx. 

Depending on where you live, getting a spot in a drive-in movie theater is like winning the golden ticket. Southampton Arts Center sold out of tickets within 24 hours for its Memorial Day weekend screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In Florida there are seven drive-in movie theaters throughout the state. Most of them are located within the Tampa Bay area.

However, Florida could be home to one of the largest drive-in movie theaters in the world. Deep in the heart of Central Florida, in the city of Eustis, the CEO of Veritas Theatres, Spencer Folmar, wants to build a five-screen outdoor theater. 

In March, Eustis city commissioners held a special meeting that included talks of selling a city-owned commercial property to Folmar.

If the $460,000 purchase is approved, the five-screen theater would sit on a 72-acre on County Road 44 in Eustis. It is expected to take three years to build. And once it's finished, it could earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

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