Can Drive-In Theaters Strike Back?

No longer a pandemic necessity, Oregon’s outdoor movie theaters seek to become a renewed summer staple.

At the early heights of the COVID-19 pandemic, drive-in movie theaters were thrust into a sudden spotlight.

In spring 2020, 99W Drive-In owner Brian Francis spoke to The New York Times about his Newberg theater being one of the only places in Oregon where you could  watch a movie on the big screen (at that moment, he was bombarded with customer calls to open early). And just last month, a patron at the Milton-Freewater Drive-In showed owner Mike Speiss a 2020 copy of Time that featured his Northeast Oregon theater.

But glowing media narratives don’t always equate to lasting consumer behavior. As it turns out, the customer who brought Speiss that magazine had walked into a somewhat tepid summer for drive-ins thus far.

May and June rains haven’t helped, nor has a studio pipeline constricted to biweekly blockbusters. Even worse, sweeter pandemic booking rates set by studios evaporated last year—and movie vaults that opened in 2020, allowing Francis to play classics like Toy Story and The Empire Strikes Back, have locked up again.

“There was a lot of renewed awareness,” Speiss says of how the pandemic impacted drive-ins. “It really didn’t help the bottom line much at all.”

Ironically, 2019 was the biggest year in the history of 99W Drive-In, Francis says, with crowds he hasn’t yet seen return—especially this year (doubly ironic, Francis has heard some patrons stayed away because they assumed from press coverage that his theater would be overcrowded). At the very least, Francis wants guests to know his Newberg lot has room to accommodate large audiences for its constant double features (like last month’s screening of Elvis and Purple Rain).

“A lot of people think I’m going to be mobbed and that it’s not worth trying, but I’ve been able to get everybody in,” he says. “You don’t need to reserve spots; come at dusk. It’s almost old school.”

Sixty-one years into his family operating the Milton-Freewater location, Speiss says the best parts of drive-ins are still seeing gargantuan images ahead and the constellations above. While the studio pipeline and high booking rates for first-run titles are challenges, the theater is “close to normal weekends,” and Speiss expects the selection of titles to be more “robust” in years to come.

Francis’ family has owned Newberg’s Cameo Theatre and the lot upon which 99W sits for three generations. The local crowds haven’t returned in force, but he is seeing visitors from Salem, Eugene and Vancouver putting in highway miles for outdoor movies.

Portland outdoor movie pop-ups are continuing this summer as well. The Hollywood Theatre has moved its offerings from the Portland Expo Center in 2021 to state parks in 2022 (Back to the Future II is up next at Milo McIver State Park on July 23). And after a couple summers of distanced drive-ins at Zidell Yards, PAM CUT (formerly the NW Film Center) has relocated its programming to the Bridge Lot at OMSI, which has plenty of lawn chair-ready space.

Associate director of creative programs Jon Richardson says PAM CUT’s goal is to make every screening a distinct, themed event. For Strictly Ballroom on July 16, dance instructors will be on hand, and Ghostbusters on July 29 will feature slime-making from a cosplay outfit called the Portland Ghostbusters. Plus, all screenings will be preceded by a local short, and single tickets ($20) will also gain the holder one free entry to the Portland Art Museum through Aug. 31.

While outdoor movies—drive-ins particularly—have been an American pastime for going on a century, younger city dwellers and suburbanites may have seen them only in movies like Grease or The Outsiders. Richardson has plenty of pro tips for newcomers. “Layers,” he laughs. “It’s going to be hot, and then later it’s going to be not hot.”

For his part, Francis encourages guests not to block sightlines with open car trunks. “Think about the people behind you,” he says. “Control the parking lights. Pull the emergency brake.”

Finally, Speiss invites moviegoers new to the drive-in experience to mimic his Eastern Oregon regulars, who have drive-in movies down to a science. “They have their pickup parked backward with a blow-up mattress in the bed and a portable stereo system and lawn chairs—all sprawled in a line,” he says.

What better way to experience gargantuan images ahead and constellations above?