U.K. Drive-Ins Boom in Pandemic Era With 40 New Cinemas (EXCLUSIVE)

The number of drive-in cinemas across the U.K. has exploded from three to 40 during the coronavirus pandemic, according to new data from media measurement firm Comscore.

Prior to the spread of the virus, the country had just three drive-in cinemas: two Cinestock sites at Haywards Heath, as well as The Star and Mouse Picture Show, which operates as an outdoor cinema at some sites and as a drive-in at others.

From July through September, however, at least 40 additional sites are offering socially distanced cinema experiences to audiences in their vehicle bubbles, with several venues even featuring roller-blading, masked service staff delivering pre-ordered snacks. Many of these cinemas are not in grim car parks, but in the spacious grounds of stately homes, museums or vast parks, making for a unique experience. Tickets generally range from £27-£35 ($34-$45) per car.

As most of the U.K.’s traditional cinemas remain closed due to anxiety among exhibitors to open without fresh product — concern that isn’t going away anytime soon due to the newly delayed “Tenet” — audiences have taken to the drive-in concept in a big way, with multiple venues reporting sold-out screenings to Variety.

“We’re in a really lucky situation, where we’ve been given a gift, which is that we can still operate,” Eleanor Lyons, co-founder of The Star and Mouse Picture Show, told Variety. “We’re delighted to see that not only is our business flourishing but we’re able to give the public something to look forward to and enjoy. For instance, we screened ‘Grease’ and it was so nice to see people smiling.”

Films being screened are a mixture of classics including “Grease,” “Stand By Me,” “Dirty Dancing” and “Pretty Woman,” alongside rereleases of recent titles like “Knives Out,” “Parasite,” “Joker” and “Rocketman.”

Most operators have upped their game, investing in state-of-the-art screens and sound systems. And audiences have also been cooperative in keeping their end of the bargain. “We’ve found the majority of audiences are really good at adhering to our social distancing measures,” The Luna Cinema founder George Wood tells Variety.

“The beauty of the drive-in is that you can have a fantastic experience at the movies and always be safe within your own car. We’ve had some great responses from audience members who have been shielding and feel safe enough at our events to come out of their homes to have fun for the first time in months, which is lovely to hear.”

The Luna Group, hitherto known for their outdoor cinemas, quickly diversified to the drive-in arena. Eight venues are already operating across the U.K. and discussions are underway for more in the months to come.

The pandemic has also led other operators to repurpose their existing core activities. Snappin’ Turtle, a production company and creative content agency specializing in producing large-scale commemorative events at London’s Royal Albert Hall, changed tack when venues shut down.

“With the Hall closed due to the pandemic, we decided to embrace the social-distanced world of entertainment instead with drive-in cinemas,” the outfit’s Talin Chakmakjian told Variety. Snappin’ Turtle linked with event cinema distributor CinEvents to set up CineDrive, a 12-night drive-in residency at the Hurtwood Park Polo Club in Surrey that kicks off Friday.

Other operators are deploying touring formats rather than staying at fixed venues. Events company Mainstage Festivals’ initiative @TheDriveIn has 13 venues across 12 U.K. cities confirmed, with a six-night run at each location. Elsewhere, outdoor cinema specialist Adventure Cinema’s Adventure Drive-In is well into a summer season that will see 144 screenings take place across 20 U.K. venues.

“For us, the main reason really was to reach as many people as possible,” Alan Crofton, founder of @TheDriveIn, told Variety. “We know most people in the U.K. won’t have had the chance to experience a drive-in cinema before, and we wanted to give that opportunity to as many people as possible, regardless of where they live in the country. As a festival company, we’re also used to touring and putting on shows across the U.K. and the rest of the world, and this model was best for supporting our extensive roster of freelance staff who live all over the country.”

While outdoor cinemas are weather-sensitive, drive-ins are less so, and could be a new business model that is here to stay in the U.K. exhibition sector.

“There’s definitely an advantage for drive-in, in that the weather isn’t as much of a consideration,” says Wood. “I have a feeling that in years to come, we will run a drive-in season perhaps in the shoulder months, when the weather isn’t as good for open-air cinema.”

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