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What it's like attending Charleston's new drive-in movie theaters during coronavirus

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There's something magical about a summer night tree frog serenade and the rustle of marsh grass joining in the soundtrack for a movie. The sounds of the Lowcountry play supporting roles in Charleston's new drive-in theaters. 

Drive-ins are finding new life during the coronavirus pandemic. The Terrace Theater, The Bend, and The Post and Courier have been hosting socially distanced drive-in nights to provide the community with a little fun during a strange and tenuous time for the entertainment industry. 

The movie business is facing a predicted $5 billion loss during the pandemic as theaters and megaplexes shuttered their doors for more than two months in the United States, according to analysts. Time magazine reported that movie theaters already were facing their worst year in history before the coronavirus; the extra losses have been devastating. 

Yet one often forgotten facet of the film industry has received a boost from the current circumstances: drive-in theaters. Social distancing is mostly built into the experience. A couple of drive-ins in the state — the Highway 21 Drive-In in Beaufort and the 25 Drive-In Auto Theatre in Greenwood — have remained active, but now the Holy City is in on the action. Pop-up drive-ins are becoming an entertainment staple during the coronavirus slowdown in Charleston. 

These days, only a few hundred drive-ins are left in the U.S., a steep decline since the 1950s when the country boasted more than 4,000, according to the National Association of Theater Operators. That decline corresponded to technology improvements, an exponential growth of indoor screens and changes in movie distribution methods.

In the Lowcountry, The Terrace Theater on James Island was the first to embrace the medium, launching a new drive-in option in lieu of indoor seating in mid-April. Tickets have been sold out for every show for weeks now.

Owner Paul Brown got the idea from his wife Robin, who is in film booking and has clients who were embracing the drive-in concept. A drive-in isn't exactly a movie theater; the logistics required to manage it are quite different. The Terrace staff tackled the challenge, using a brick wall and side parking lot that can hold about 30 cars. The wall was painted white to serve as a projection screen, and a local FM radio station provided the means for delivering the sound directly into the cars. 

"My staff put it all together, from painting to the projection," Brown said. "We didn’t just want to buy an inflatable screen and a sub-par projection. It needed to be true to the real experience."

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Terrace Theater holds a drive in showing Friday April 24, 2020, on James Island. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The rules are strict: Tickets are $25 per carload, with a maximum of six people per vehicle; tickets and concessions must be purchased online in advance; patrons check in and are directed to their designated parking spot one car at a time; gates open at 7 p.m. and the first film begins at 8 p.m. No one can get out of their car (except to use the restrooms inside, and then only three at a time).

"Part of putting such effort into our system was that we wanted the community to feel safe," Brown said. "The response has been amazing. Our attention to details and rules have been respected, and we in return are feeling the love." 

On a Wednesday night in the cozy parking lot, I felt like I was lounging comfortably on my living room couch, snuggled into the back of my small SUV with a stack of pillows and blankets and enjoying a fresh batch of popcorn. It was exciting to be out for some entertainment for the first time in weeks. 

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Windy and Ian Silver sit with their children, Shep, 5, Chance, 11, and Dagney, 4, in the back of their car as they wait for the Terrace Theater’s drive in movie showing to begin Friday April 24, 2020, on James Island. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Masked and gloved staff members smoothly guided my car into a space as the sun set, and all I had to worry about was turning on the radio before enjoying a night of flicks. It was the closest thing I'll get to watching a movie in a theater during the pandemic. 

"Sonic The Hedgehog" played first, followed by a late-night "Jurassic Park" feature, for which several of the families in minivans were replaced by teenage friends in Jeeps and pickups. The screen quality was top-notch, and it seemed like every spot in the lot had a great view. The Terrace has done it right. 

On top of that, I felt safe. The one time I used the restroom inside, I had to wait in a clearly marked line until enough folks had left the building. The bathroom door opened with a foot pedal instead of a handle. 

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A patron pulls up underneath the Terrace Theater’s marquee to check in for the drive in showing Friday April 24, 2020, on James Island. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Brown says he's been working on securing a new, larger off-site location for future drive-in experiences, though the lot has been working fine for now. He imagines it will go away after his movie theater can reopen with indoor seating, so the time to experience the drive-in is now.  

The Bend at Azalea Drive also has launched a pop-up drive-in during the pandemic, handled by GoCo Events and OOH Events. This one is vastly different from The Terrace's cute little lot and nearby hi-def screen. Dozens of cars are arranged in a vast field, with an inflatable screen and speakers set up near the Ashley River.

Organizer Rebecca Gosnell said The Bend and the event companies wanted to stay connected to the community and create income for restaurants, food trucks and vendors that she normally works with. The drive-in is something social that doesn't create a health risk, she said. 

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“Grease” plays on an inflatable screen during a pop up drive in at The Bend Sunday May 17, 2020, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

"I'm looking for a little joy right now, and we are betting that others are, too," she said.

The first movie night at The Bend took place mid-May, though the idea for the drive-in blossomed about a month ago. Permits had to be secured and logistics worked out.

There could've been 100 people on site last Friday night.

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Patrons eagerly wait for the movie to begin at the drive in set up at The Bend Sunday May 17, 2020, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

It was "date night" and "The Notebook" was playing (Saturdays are "family fun" nights, and Sundays are "musical" nights.) Vendors served up beer and wine, fresh popcorn and boiled peanuts under mossy oaks draped with white lights. BBQ and charcuterie boards had to be preordered.

An emcee with a good sense of humor took the mic before the show and invited couples to come up front for a dancing contest. It lightened the mood and incited some laughter and "horn honks" as applause. One of the prizes was hand sanitizer from Firefly Distillery. As the darkness set in, I popped open the back of my SUV and curled up inside once again, this time with a glass of Chardonnay and bag of boiled peanuts. 

Chairs were set in front of some of the many cars, but all vehicles were at least six feet apart, and security was on patrol to enforce social distancing. Portable toilets and plenty of hand sanitizer stations stood at the ready. 

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Rhett Moore (left), Lauren Hurt, Catie Hurt and Naomi Hurt sit together while waiting for the drive in movie to start at The Bend Sunday May 17, 2020, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Though the drive-in seems popular, with tickets selling out for each night so far, it remains unclear whether they will remain open after the pandemic subsides and things return to some version of normal. 

"South Carolina is ready to reopen for business, so it is uncertain how long the drive-in will capture people's attention," Gosnell said. "This is a not a very profitable business model so it can only continue as long as there is a strong following."

But it would be fun to bring it back in the fall when mild temperatures return, she offered.

"We will see what the public wants."

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

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