There Is a Light That Will Never Go Out at Austin's Drive-In Theatres
Theatres may be shuttered, but the in-car cinema experience still shines bright
Everyone in the film distribution and screening business is nervous right now. It seemed like cinemas were the first industry to go into a coronavirus lockdown – some temporarily, others permanently – with no obvious end in sight. Yet while sit-down theatres turn to virtual cinema screening technology, the projectors are still rolling at the drive-in.
If you think the drive-in is something you only see in reruns of Happy Days, think again. There are over 300 still operational around the U.S.: some seasonal single-screens, others year-round outdoor multiplexes, capable of holding thousands of cars. In the Austin area, there are three: Doc's Drive-In Theatre in Buda, and two locations for the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in – one in Austin, and one in Round Rock. Abiding by the city of Austin's shelter-in-place order Blue Starlite's Mueller location went dark, but with Gov. Greg Abbott changing statewide rules effective May 1, Central Austin's only drive-in reopens on May 4.
With local indoor theatres remaining closed for the foreseeable future, drive-ins are welcome relief for cineastes: As Blue Starlite founder and owner Josh Frank put it, right now the drive-ins are not the most different show in town – they're the only show in town.
Yet the last month has seen drive-ins operate under a complicated patchwork of local rules. While Blue Starlite Mueller is within Austin city limits, both Blue Starlite Round Rock and Doc's are within the Austin commuter belt, but not in Austin itself. Because there was no statewide standard on what exactly a coronavirus lockdown should look like, each municipality made its own decisions about what to allow.
Doc's initially turned out the lights, but that was out of an abundance of caution, rather than local government edict. "We closed for a week," said Doc's co-founder and owner Sarah Denny, "but the city didn't tell us we needed to be closed." That week was filled with "a billion phone calls, until we could speak to the judge." What they were told was that, since they were serving food, they counted as an essential service under Buda's rules, and so they could reopen.
But that's Buda. It's been a tougher path for Frank's outdoor cinema. When theatres first closed, the Blue Starlite Mueller was left in a sort of limbo. No one knew exactly what the situation was, and getting hold of anyone at the city of Austin who knew which side of the closure blade drive-ins would fall was a challenge. When he finally heard from them, it was good news. Frank said, "The rules did not apply to us because we were an outdoor thing, we were not enclosed space, either inside or outside, and everyone was in their cars."
Elated, he kept booking films. He made some changes. First, he cut the number of car slots by half, but doubled the number of screenings, "so instead of doing three nights a week at full capacity, I'd be doing seven at half capacity." Next was checking e-tickets on phones through car windows, and ordering concessions by text for curbside delivery. The experiment was a success, and he even scheduled a program of SXSW-selected shorts. That was such a success that he was planning repeat screenings – and then the rules changed. On March 24, the city issued the shelter-in-place ordinance. "That's when the language hit that it was essential businesses only. Well, we're not what they consider an essential business."
During all of this, Frank had been operating as effectively a one-man show, and so the Round Rock location – which had only opened on Feb. 28 – had gone dark. However, with Austin closed, it was time to fire up that second site. He checked with the city, which turned out to be an easier proposition than in Austin since the Round Rock location is in the city-run Old Settlers Park, making them his landlord. He got the green light to reopen on April 8 – with one strict rule. "We are allowed to stay open as long as nobody gets out of their car for any reason." That rule meant closing the bathrooms and the walk-up concession stand, both of which gave Frank cause to pause. Finally, he decided that reopening "seemed really important, if I can give people a sense of normalcy in these times."
Both Blue Starlite and Doc's have tweaked their booking to reflect what their audiences want right now. Think of it as comfort food cinema. At Doc's, Denny said, "Normally we'd have more scary movies, but there's lots of kids and families coming." As a result, "We're definitely playing more family-friendly movies and more throwback movies."
It's been an even more radical change for Blue Starlite. The Austin location has three screens, meaning more space to experiment. Frank had already been screening indie titles – many of which would have bypassed even film-friendly Austin completely – on his smallest screen, which is why he'd been so eager to book the SXSW shorts. But booking in Round Rock has been a different deal since he only has one screen and so has decided to focus on family-friendly titles. However, even then he has made tweaks to respond to what his younger audience wants and needs right now. "A family movie for me is Grease or Harry and the Hendersons. Those are the family movies I grew up with. But a lot of the times, the parents are talking about Shrek or The Lego Movie. So I've added in a lot of the newer movies."
However, both drive-ins are already adding variety. Doc's kid-friendly fare like Dora and the Lost City of Gold has been joined by Zoolander, and horror is making a slight return with screenings of World War Z. Over at Blue Starlite, they're running early family-friendly films as soon as the sun goes down, and late-night fodder for the adults. Frank has even worked with Pflugerville-based Ultimate Outdoor Entertainment to provide the seemingly impossible – afternoon screenings, using an LED screen, so the littlest of littles can still get to bed before dark.
As for the future, both drive-ins are as in the dark as anyone. For now, they'll stay open, as long as management and customers abide by the rules, or the rules change. The next big step for Doc's will be reopening their film-themed on-site mini-homes for overnight stays, but Denny stressed that will wait until the situation improves. Frank, meanwhile, was already eyeing May 9 – the date for the city's shelter-in-place ordinance to expire – to reopen Austin, but has now been able to move that up. He's looking to provide food delivery from local restaurants, and he's already reaching out to independent filmmakers about scheduling their movies, starting with Austin-made SXSW 2020 selection The Carnivores. Frank said, "We'll be offering screens to whoever needs them, whether it's a new indie release whose screenings got canceled, or maybe somebody who never got the attention they deserve."
But the emphasis will remain on the safety of the audience and the staff, and the reopened Blue Starlite Mueller will practice the same stay-in-your-car rules as the Round Rock location. Frank said, "We believe our business should give our patrons the same security that we would hope to have for our own family when we go out during this difficult time."
Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-InOpen Tue.-Sun.
Mueller: 2103 E. M. Franklin
Round Rock: 800 Harrell Parkway
Doc's Drive-In TheatreOpen Wed.-Sun.
1540 Satterwhite, Buda