Drive-in, virtual cinemas aim to make movie-going experience safe during pandemic

Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive in 11-24-2020

Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in brought new entertainment to their movie screens (KXAN Photo/Mercedes Gonzales)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in and Violet Crown Cinema, like many other movie venues across the country, found themselves figuring out how to adapt their movie-going experiences in a pandemic. The goal was to continue engaging their audiences in a safe way, which brought new ways to watch in addition to new entertainment on the screen.

Blue Starlite owner Josh Frank said for the past 10 years, he always thought about what his drive-in could do for entertainment that has not been done yet. When the pandemic hit, Frank adapted his drive-in model to support his peers and community.

“Some light that has come out of the darkness is things like that, where we’ve been able to create synergy and work to help keep other Austin events and foundational creative businesses going,” Frank said.

One way was bringing the Austin Opera to the drive-in. Operas and concerts were filmed and presented on the movie screen at Blue Starlite locations. It also brought in live comedy stand-up from around the country and live streamed rock concerts.

“I feel like a drive-in needs to ask when they’re experimenting, ‘Is this as safe as just the basic way of doing things?’” Frank said. “I feel like you have a responsibility to your employees and to your audience to strive to be the safest thing someone can do.”

Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive changed some of their operations to keep their employees and patrons safe 11-24-2020
People going to Blue Starlite can pre-order their concessions online when buying their ticket online (KXAN Photo/Mercedes Gonzales)

As part of COVID safety rules at the Blue Starlite’s three locations, hatchbacks cannot be opened, people cannot lay in their truck beds and car windows must be 75% up if the people inside are not wearing a mask.

People can pre-order their concessions when they buy their tickets online. As cars are checked in, their ticket would say if they also ordered a concession package, which includes popcorn, candy and soda. Movie snacks are handed to customers when they arrive.

“The big thing in the month after the stay-at-home [order] was really solidifying our new operating procedures,” Frank said. “Not only to protect my staff, my family and my patrons, but also to assure that we could be there in the year ahead. For our patrons to be able to count on us, to be available as a place they can get out of the house.”

With Hollywood movie releases pushed back, people take interest in indie films

During the pandemic, Blue Starlite has seen more people coming to see indie, or independent, films. Before, the drive-in would show at least one indie film a month.

Now, Blue Starlite shows five to six indie films at a time. While not all of them would draw a crowd, Frank said people would still come out to at least one or two and connect over the film.

“More people are coming in, because there’s not Hollywood movies. Some people want to come see our classics: Goonies, Indiana Jones,” Frank said. “But some people, they’ve seen them enough and they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a new movie I can see at the Blue Starlite. And, so let’s go see a new movie tonight.’”

Highlyanticipated movie releases, such as Marvel’s “Black Widow,” have been postponed from a few months to a year or released on a streaming service as a result of the pandemic.

Violet Crown Cinema said its art house films have been getting lots of attention through its virtual cinema.

Violet Crown, an indoor movie theater, closed its locations in Austin, Charlottesville, Virginia and Santa Fe, New Mexico, back in March.

Violet Crown Cinema closed their theaters in March 11-24-2020
Violet Crown Cinema closed its theaters in March due to COVID19, but continued to engage their audience with virtual cinema (KXAN Photo/Mercedes Gonzales)

“We were looking at multiple ways that we could stay engaged with our audience and that we show movies, we curate films and present them to our audience,” Director of marketing and programming David Gil said. “While we couldn’t do it in person, this seems like a way for that to continue to happen.”

The Violet Crown’s virtual experience includes buying tickets to stream films found on the cinema’s website in the comfort of your own home. Patrons can stream the film they bought for a certain amount of time, depending on the film. Gil says art house films such as “All I Can Say” and “John Lewis: Good Trouble” did well in its virtual box office.

“It seems like [documentaries] have been doing the best, but there’s certainly been narratives there that have certainly performed well also,” Gil said. “Each has been able to find an audience. But overall, we’ve been happy with the performance of the virtual cinema offerings.”

While Violet Crown does not have an exact date of when it plans to reopen its Austin location, it is preparing to open its Charlottesville theater Dec. 4. The current health environment of the community and the ever-changing movie release schedule determines when a Violet Crown will reopen, Gil said.

Locations that open will start with RSVP Cinema, which allows people to rent out a private theater and watch either a newly-released Hollywood or classic art film with their friends or family.

COVID-19 guidelines will also be put in place, such as individually-packaged self-serve items , hand-sanitizing stations in various spots around the cinema, and disinfected seats and tray tables between showings.

Cinemas continue to bring community amidst pandemic

Gil says what usually makes going to the movie theater so special is being able to sit in a room full of strangers and experience a film for the first time, together.

“It’s a big part of that cinema magic,” Gil said. “So, the goal is to get there. We’d like to get there as soon as possible, but we’re going to do it safely. We’re not going to rush it.”

That cinema magic still finds its way at the drive-in and virtual cinema. Violet Crown gets emails from people asking when its Austin theater will open again, so they can visit or suggest films to present.

At Blue Starlite, private rentals have increased by 100% during the pandemic. It went from two rentals a week to 10. Frank said there are some weeks where 70% of the events were private and the rest were public.

“There’s a lot of people that want to have our special, funky Austin safe experience as a way to celebrate things in a safe way,” Frank said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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