Pop-up drive-in theaters are a fix for social-distanced moviegoing
McHenry Outdoor Theater owner Scott Dehn couldn't believe his eyes when he opened for the season on May 8.
The last-remaining Chicago-area drive-in movie theater reopened with a "prehistoric" pairing of the 1990s films "The Flintstones" and "Jurassic Park."
"My capacity had to be lowered to 350 cars due to the COVID-19 rules, which is cool, but there were well over 1,000 trying to get in," Dehn said. "I highly doubt that 'The Flintstones' had that kind of premiere when it originally came out in 1994."
Save for one rain date, Dehn said the McHenry Outdoor Theater has been at capacity since reopening. Dehn attributes the crowds to a pent-up demand for people to get out, even if it is for older movies that could be streamed from home.
So it's no surprise that other venues would turn to pop-up movie drive-ins as a safer, socially distant way to attract audiences.
The Marcus Theatres chain jumped aboard, with the Elgin Cinema able to host 93 vehicles in its adjacent parking lot. Nightly double bills include pairings of "Inside Out" with "Black Panther" from July 10 to 16.
Stadium-sized parking lots were also lures for the newly created Chicago Drive-In Theatres. This company erected temporary drive-ins starting last month at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview (formerly Toyota Park) and Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates.
Smaller venues are also getting in the drive-in game.
"We have a beautiful property, so why not use this outdoor space to provide live music and a great movie?" said Jazmine Gonzalez, owner of Loft 21 in Lincolnshire.
On Friday evenings in July, the renovated party venue (formerly a Cubby Bear sports bar) screens family-friendly films such as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Goonies." There's also a DJ playing before the movie begins at 8:30 p.m.
"We've been really creative in finding ways to support our business, but also give families an opportunity to still celebrate, and be socially distant and safe," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez hopes that the drive-in experiment works and that audiences follow safety protocols of wearing masks outside of their vehicles.
The Woodfire Tavern in Long Grove recently experimented with a drive-in movie in its parking lot. But manager Bill Feldgreber said there were difficulties with sightlines and vehicle exhaust issues from people tuning in for the radio audio and running their air-conditioning.
Woodfire recently experimented with a reconfigured "Parking Lot Party" instead as a way for people to get out of the house.
Stand-alone drive-ins have been on the decline over the last 25 years. But rather than seeing pop-up drive-in theaters as competition, Dehn of the McHenry Outdoor Theater feels they are actually beneficial.
"Anything that keeps drive-in cinemas at the top of minds for potential customers is great," said Dehn, who is also planning drive-in concerts and comedy shows this season. "That can only be good for the revival of something that I think is important to the movie industry."
McHenry Outdoor Theater
Location: 1510 N. Chapel Hill Road, McHenry; goldenagecinemas.com
Cost: $12; $6 seniors, kids and active military; kids 3 and younger admitted free
Movie times: Box office opens at 6:30 p.m.; first feature at 9:05 p.m.; continues through summer nightly on dates that are not blocked out for concerts
Marcus Elgin Cinema
Location: 111 S. Randall Road, Elgin; (847) 622-3023 or marcustheatres.com
Cost: $20 per carload Monday through Thursday; $25 per carload Friday through Sunday
Movie times: Lot opens at 7 p.m. nightly; film begins at dusk; continues through summer
Cost: $30 per vehicle; $50 premium spot
Movie times: Lot opens at 7 p.m.; live DJ from 7 to 8:30 p.m. then film begins; Fridays through July 31
Chicago Drive-In Theaters
Locations: SeatGeek Stadium (formerly Toyota Park), 7000 S. Harlem Ave., Bridgeview; Sears Centre Arena, 5333 Prairie Stone Parkway, Hoffman Estates
Cost: $30 per car; $50 preferred viewing spot per car
Movie times: See chicagodrivein.com for showtimes.
ChiTown Movies and Bucket Listers
Location: 2343 S. Throop St., Chicago; chitownfutbol.com/chitown-movies
Cost: $33 per car
Movie times: 8:50 p.m. select nights; through July 16
Cost: No admission charge; food and beverages sold on site; guests encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs