Drive-in theaters experience revival during pandemic

Tiger, Georgia - Siblings Tillie Crumley, 16, (left) and Shepard Crumley, 11, (right) play a game of chess before the start of the movie at the Tiger Drive-In movie theater in Tiger, Friday, May 22, 2020. This was the family’s first time at the theater. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Tiger, Georgia - Siblings Tillie Crumley, 16, (left) and Shepard Crumley, 11, (right) play a game of chess before the start of the movie at the Tiger Drive-In movie theater in Tiger, Friday, May 22, 2020. This was the family’s first time at the theater. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

TIGER, Ga. – Hours before the movie starts, the vehicles started rumbling into the terraced lawn across from Tiger’s city hall: Aging station wagons packed with kids, ruby-red pickup trucks with jacked-up tailgates, sporty hatchbacks with room for blankets in the back.

The northeast Georgia city at the base of a mountain is home to about 400 people, but every weekend the population swells as hundreds flock to the Tiger Drive-In — part of a revival of theaters seen as safe havens for movie lovers during the pandemic.

Thanks to the newfound interest, some of these relics of Americana are now exploring other options to attract social-distancing newcomers, such as hosting live music bands, family reunions and school ceremonies, to fill the vacuum left by economic restrictions.

The owner of Tiger’s theater, Tom Major, can be partially credited with the pandemic-era boom in drive-in customers in Georgia. After Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order in early April shuttered all theaters, he appealed to local officials close to the governor to make an exception for drive-ins.

He was planning to screen the movie "Avatar" for some family members in the spacious field on April 18 when he got word his appeal worked: The governor sent a tweet that clarified drive-in movie theaters can open if they take certain additional precautions.

Major alerted his handful of employees to return and, hours later, his drive-in was flooded with cars, each parked about 20 feet from each other to abide by safety regulations.

He pulled an all-nighter answering more than 400 Facebook questions, many from theater buffs eager to return. These days, his drive-in’s grassy lot is filled with license plates from Gainesville, Athens, metro Atlanta and North Carolina to catch mostly B-list flicks.

“We’ve been sold out most every night. It’s funny – we don’t have any great movies. They’ve all been delayed until later this year,” he said. “But we’re probably doing better with a limited audience than we did last year.”

Not all drive-ins have flung their gates open. An industry clearinghouse, driveinmovie.com, estimates that dozens of drive-in theaters around the nation remained closed, though some are preparing to resume operations with limited concessions and amenities.

The handful of drive-ins in Georgia are reporting brisk business. The Starlight Drive-In in southeast Atlanta reopened in late April, and an adjoining flea market followed suit in May. The Swan Drive-In, located in Blue Ridge, is showing family-friendly double features to a large audience every weekend.

This weekend, the Swan will offer a free double-feature to celebrate owner Steve Setser’s grandson’s graduation from the local high school. On the big screen are classic coming-of-age flicks: “Grease” and “American Graffiti.”

“There are a lot of people coming out who have been confined — they’re ready to get out and they’re appreciative that we’re getting them the option,” said Setser, who hired additional security help, cut parking in half and limited concessions to one customer at a time.

It’s just another adaptation in a career of working at the north Georgia drive-in. He has worked at the theater since he was 15, starting on the cleanup crew and graduating to projectionist operator, then manager and later owner. He likes to quip: “That’s really starting from the bottom up.”

His track to the movie business sharply contrasts with Major’s path. A former executive with Eastman Kodak, Major later developed neighborhoods across Atlanta’s suburbs and ran a marketing firm from his Sandy Springs home.

His wife Sherryl, who hails from Tiger, came to him in 2004 with the idea to reopen her family’s drive-in. Her father built the theater in 1954 and shut it down 30 years later, and her daughter wanted to bring it back to life.

“I said, ‘Sweetheart, don’t make me do it. I didn’t know anything about the business, and it’s a town of a few hundred people bypassed by major highways. My friends said it would never work, but to me those are fighting words.”

He built a makeshift screen for about $6,000 and cobbled together a new kitchen in the middle of the field. Sitting across the street from town hall, it’s become a focal point of the community, hosting Girl Scout campouts, barbecue pig roasts and Georgia football watch parties.

On some nights, residents of the assisted living community that Major built next-door watch movies from the porch while tuning in from FM radio. Other visitors are drawn to the old-school spectacle.

“It’s a date night – and we haven’t had a date night in so long,” said Travis Cintron, a local chef with his wife Daniela. “She’s never been to a drive-in – and we didn’t feel safe going bowling.”

Daniela Cintron, a local journalist, chuckled before sharing a more personal story. She contracted the coronavirus in March, and quarantined herself from her husband and young daughter for weeks. Healthy again, the allure of catching a movie in the outdoors was hard to pass up.

“We don’t take this lightly at all. I don’t want anyone to go through what we did. It’s so very lonely – a virus you have to face alone,” she said. “We were thoughtful about this – and a drive-in made sense.”

The surge of attention has brought business opportunities. Georgia’s live entertainment venues are shuttered through the end of the month – maybe longer – and some might not open even when the ban is lifted.

Setser has been contacted by an array of event organizers – from missionaries to mediums – seeking to book his Blue Ridge theater, though he’s not yet comfortable taking that step. In Tiger, however, the theater will soon become a de facto music hall.

He booked a country act for Memorial Day weekend, and bands are set to take the drive-in’s stage nearly every weekend through the summer.

“We’re a little town and we have some action going on,” said Major. “How can I be so blessed during this pandemic?”