2 drive-ins hope for blockbuster season as COVID-19 keeps movie theatres closed

New Brunswick’s two drive-in theatres are hoping for a blockbuster season as the province remains under COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions and regular movie theatres remain closed.

“We’re a great venue for this situation in the sense that everyone can remain in their vehicle [and] they can use their own seating area to watch the movie,” said Don Monahan, who owns and operates the Sussex Drive-In with his wife, Tina.

He even has a few ideas for how to use the drive-in screen and FM radio transmitters to offer other entertainment this year.

“So I’m really hoping to … bring people together so that they can, not gather, but still remain within their bubble and get out of their house,” said Monahan.

“I know a lot of people are going stir crazy during these past eight weeks,” since the state of emergency was declared on March 19.

The Sussex Drive-In and Neptune Drive-In in Shediac normally open Victoria Day weekend.

But they’re both awaiting clarification from government officials about whether they qualify to reopen as outdoor recreation under Phase 2 of the COVID-19 recovery plan announced Friday and, if they do, what changes they have to make.

Monahan hopes to open as early as this Friday, with the province’s approval.

He expects the number of vehicles he can accommodate to drop from 500 to about 300, given physical distancing requirements.

He’s been busy outlining two-metre distances in the washrooms and canteen and setting up Plexiglas in the canteen as well.

Tina and Don Monahan hope to open the Sussex Drive-In by next weekend and are looking to hire up to 18 people to work at the gatehouse, as movie attendants, in the canteen and as security. (Casey Page)

“We might have to enforce stricter guidelines or rules, that when people come to the drive-in, they’ll have to remain in their car, except for going to the canteen and or using the public washrooms,” said Monahan.

That’s because the gates normally open at 7:30 p.m., but the movie doesn’t start until dusk. “So a lot of people would walk their dogs, they would play football, throw a Frisbee, because we have a lot of green space.”

The movie choices will be limited, said Monahan, because no newer titles will be released until July 17. Hollywood has pushed back major releases since movie theatres have been closed due to COVID-19.

Still, Monahan hopes the experience itself of watching a movie under the stars will be a draw.

Few drive-ins left in Canada

There are only about three dozen drive-ins left in Canada, he said.”So it definitely is a unique beast.”

And the Sussex Drive-In, started in 1966, has become “an icon” in the region, said Monahan, who took ownership in February 2019.

He’s counting on the drive-in to help make up for some of the lost revenue from the KOA Campground side of his business.

Although campgrounds are allowed to open under Phase 2 of the recovery plan, Monahan said more than half of his revenue usually comes from overnighter business, mostly people from the United States, Ontario and Quebec.

So with the borders closed to non-essential travel, reservations are down significantly, he said.

Could offer live music, comedy

The drive-in is open Tuesday nights and Friday through Sunday nights.

But Monahan is also looking into being able to offer live music, comedy or other entertainment using the FM radio transmitters to “blast it out to people in the park.”

“I’m being approached by a multitude of different organizations that want to use the drive-in and the screen in a different format,” he said. “I think it’s a great way to bring a different audience, a different theme to the drive-in.”

Jeffery Coates said if he gets the go-ahead from the province this week, he could open the Neptune Drive-In in Shediac by May 22. (Submitted by Jeffery Coates)

Jeffery Coates, president of Neptune Drive-In, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

This will be Coates’s 11th season and “the buzz” is it could be one of the best yet if he gets the go-ahead from the province.

But Coates, who also operates Vogue Theatre in Sackville, said there’s still “a lot of things to consider.”

He said he realizes some people have limited funds because of the pandemic, so he sees the older selection of movies available to him to play as one of his biggest challenges.

“Everybody’s been stuck home now for two months watching anything and everything through Netflix and Amazon Prime and Disney Plus.

“So how how am I supposed to entice you to come to the drive-in and watch what you’ve been watching at your house for the last 2½ months?”

Much will also depend on what restrictions the province imposes and the added expense of what changes he has to make, he said.

Normally, up to 325 vehicles can fit at the drive-in. But with physical distancing, Coates expects the maximum would drop to about 150 vehicles, which spells lost revenue.

Given the layout of the building, he believes there should be ample space to create one-way lanes for the concession stand.

There’s a whole lot out there to cipher through and figure out.– Jeffrey Coates, president of Neptune Drive-In

And the equipment and staff are already spread out. “So that wouldn’t be too much of an adjustment.”

“The biggest thing would be [putting] markings on the floor [indicating] where patrons would have to, you know, stop, place their order, pick up certain parts of their order, proceeding to the cash to get the rest of their order, pay for it and then exiting the building.”

Coates said he might have to close the washrooms though and pay to install portable washrooms outside.

May open more nights

He said he may look at opening more than the usual Friday-through-Sunday nights to make the drive-in more financially viable — and because there’s no other entertainment currently available in Shediac.

“We can’t have everybody showing up on the same night of the week,” he said.

“So there’s a whole lot out there to cipher through and figure out.

“But the first step is finding out if we qualify to open and then to start figuring out what we have to do to open and then go from there.”

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