Movie theaters across the country have shut down as the coronavirus crisis has led the government to enforce stay-at-home orders and evening curfews in some cities. The film industry has been hit hard as a result, with studios either pushing back the release of many films, including the hotly anticipated new Wes Anderson flick The French Dispatch and Daniel Craig's final Bond film No Time to Die, or choosing to go direct to streaming, as is the case with Pixar's Onward.
Somewhat exempt in all this are drive-in theaters. According to Deadline, only 14 movie theaters in all of the U.S. were open last week, and 13 of them were drive-ins. Just one of those theaters was showing first-run films: the Ocala Drive-In in Ocala, Florida. Writer Ernie Smith discovered, and shared in a fascinating and thorough Twitter thread, that the Ocala Drive-In was responsible for the entire revenue of the top-grossing film of last weekend: the arthouse horror flick Swallow, bringing in $1,710.
"Anybody that knows me and knows the drive-in knows I don't close," Ocala Drive-In owner John Watzke told me over the phone. "I've had hurricanes come, I've stayed open until the power went off and I had no one in the parking lot," he said.
The 63-year-old proprietor says he feels a responsibility to stay open not just for his employees who rely on their wages, but also for those impacted by the coronavirus who are either going stir crazy in isolation or dealing with loved ones' exposure or death.
"I was on the Mississippi coast during Hurricane Katrina. To me, some of the things I remember [from that time] was anything that gave us a few minutes of feeling normal, take your mind off everything that's going on and the pressure you're under either financially or emotionally," he said. "Anything that gave you a sense of feeling normal for just an hour or so meant a lot. In a situation like this where people are out of work…[it helps] if they can get away for a few hours and come to the movies. They're in their car, they're safe. At least you're seeing something besides the four walls of the house."
Watzke recalled being at the drive-in his dad worked at during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. It wasn't until "little pieces of the screen started flaking off" that his dad looked at him and said "I guess we need to shut it down and go home."
The Ocala Drive-In originally opened in March 1948, but it was closed in 2002. "It was in pretty bad shape when I found it and restored it and re-opened it," Watzke said. Watzke comes from a long line of movie theater workers: his grandfather was a projectionist, as was his father, his brother, and now their sons. He used to go to theaters with his father as a kid, helping him repair equipment and learning the trade. "We go back 107 years of the family working in theaters," he said.
Opening the theater was a "bucket list" item for Watzke; he's not in it for financial gain—that's not why he's staying open, either. "That's the thing about drive-in theaters. You don't make a lot of money. You can make a good living if you work it right, but you've got to have a passion for it."
Watzke said he's been able to adapt to COVID-19 life fast by going to "great extreme" to ensure patrons' safety while watching Trolls World Tour, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, or the less child-friendly indie horror about cults The Other Lamb. He sectioned off every other parking space with rope and fencing so each car has 10 to 16 feet between one other (meaning his max capacity is just 40% of the usual amount); people can order concessions online and an employee wearing a mask and gloves will deliver to their car, stretching out their arm to reach the driver's outstretched arm so they can stay six feet apart; Watzke patrols to make sure no one with lawn chairs ventures out of their designated space; kitchen employees wear masks and gloves; food runners trash their gloves after delivering each order; trays are disinfected after each use; employees get their temperature taken at the start of their shift then again every three hours. There's a lot more, but you get the picture.
Watzke is adamant that his drive-in is as safe as anyone's home, and always will be. "I've actually had people tell me it's as safe as being in a hospital," he laughed. "I'm taking every precaution possible."
Watzke is hitting his current capacity on a regular basis, but he's continuing to charge the same amount so the Ocala is "not raking it in by no means."
He's also offering his drive-in free of charge for church services, city meetings, and graduations so they can all continue at safe social distances, with attendees staying in their cars as presenters speak on stage and have their voices projected through the drive-in's radio frequency. Some events can even be projected onto the screen. It's his hope that everyone comes out of this safe, and that drive-ins everywhere can survive. Regardless, he won't be closing until he has no choice. "The old cliché 'the show must go on' is not a cliché in my family: It's a way of life."