After a pandemic renaissance, Canada’s drive-ins still have stories to tell

In Flin-Flon, Manitoba, home to Canada’s northernmost drive-in movie theater, sunset can take a while during the summer months.

“Our movies start so late because of daylight in June. We’ll start at 11:00 p.m. at night,” said Big Island Drive-in co-owner Dawn Hlady.

The late start didn’t seem to be a problem for Amanda Unrau last year.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I must have seen at least a dozen movies.”

With summer on the horizon, the 40 or so remaining drive-in theaters across Canada are raising the curtain on another season.

Many enjoyed a resurgence in recent years when restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced outdoor entertainment.

Now, indoor theaters have reopened, but Canada’s drive-ins still have plenty of stories to share, and not just the ones you can see on screen.

Dawn Hlady is the owner of the Big Island Drive-In Theater in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Moviegoers can tune into 92.5 FM from their vehicle to hear the sounds of the big screen. (Submitted by Dawn Hlady)

From the outskirts of town

Drive-in infrastructure and marketing often date back to the 1950s, although new ones, both ephemeral and permanent, have appeared in recent years.

One of them is the Thousand Islands Drive-in in Gananoque, Ontario. Owner Paul Peterson was able to take advantage of the extra space behind his indoor theater by adding a permanent drive-in in 2021, starting with an inflatable screen for the first few months.

“It was an adventure,” Peterson said, noting that they had a good season in the fall last year. He says they did even better in the winter by opening in December and January this year.

“We’ve seen a lot of thermal pajamas and a lot of blankets and coveralls and things like that,” he said.

The Thousand Islands Drive-In in Ganonoque, Ont., was open during the height of pandemic restrictions last winter. Owner Paul Peterson says they even managed to eclipse their regular season. (Submitted by Paul Peterson)

Although the 1000 Islands Drive-in is new, Peterson has plenty of experience in the field. He owned the Mustang Drive-In in Picton, Ontario for 32 years. He says that even though some drive-in theaters have disappeared, that doesn’t mean businesses are in trouble.

“The drive-in theaters didn’t close because they were failing… The drive-in theaters closed because they sold the land for millions of dollars. boom years for 20 years,” Peterson said. mentioned.

“When drive-ins were popular, when they were built in the 1950s, they bought land that was just on the outskirts of town because it was cheap.”

In many places in Ontario, this land is now prime real estate.

This sentiment is reflected in the fact that Canview Drive-in near Niagara, for example, is listed for sale at nearly $8 million.

Paul Peterson, right, and his son Jamie, left, are business partners, seen here at the Thousand Islands Drive-in snack bar in Gananoque, Ontario. (Submitted by Paul Peterson)

“The city did not want the screen to turn off”

But it’s a different landscape in Saskatchewan, which has five drive-ins. One of them is Moonlight Movies Drive-in at Pilot Butte, which opened during the pandemic.

Owner Jason Longworth says that compared to past drive-ins he’s hosted, Moonlight’s attendance in 2020 broke records.

He says they were even able to stay open all winter that year, and while he notes attendance wasn’t quite the same last summer, “it’s still going well.”

Prior to opening Moonlight Movies, Longworth helped keep the Jubilee Drive-In in Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan operational.

“When the [previous] owner retired, it was during this time that the shift from film to digital happened,” he said.

“It was hard enough, as it is, probably selling your business in a small town, and now you’re selling a business that needs to buy a big capital buy.”

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When no buyer surfaced, the Village of Manitou Beach purchased the land and hired Longworth and his business partner to operate it, now called The Drive-In at Manitou Beach.

“The city didn’t want the screen to turn off.”

Outside of Moonlight Movies, which is nine kilometers from Regina, Longworth says the province’s drive-ins are all far from major urban centers.

“It’s amazing how they do it, because none of them are close to cities.”

While he’s worried about the impact of streaming services on shrinking release windows, Longworth doesn’t think it’s an existential threat to drive-ins.

“Those remaining theaters are probably pretty stable. They’ll just keep moving forward.”

Moonlight movies at Pilot Butte, Sask. While the COVID-19 pandemic gave drive-ins a moment in the spotlight, there was also sometimes a dearth of new movies being released, leading many drive-ins to host classic movie nights like La Petite Mermaid. (Submitted by Jason Longworth)

Returning from extinction

A province to the west, the situation is different. Before the pandemic, there were no drive-in theaters in Alberta. Some pop-ups have popped up over the past couple of years, as has the High River Sunset Drive-In, a volunteer-run nonprofit to support local charities.

Jim Harrington worked at drive-ins in the province. He now lives in Edmonton and started the Facebook group Alberta Drive in Revival Initiative. He was happy to see the High River Sunset Drive-In open and hopes for more.

“We were the only province in Canada without one of them. And we certainly still don’t have a first-race drive-in in existence.”

It’s a similar story in Newfoundland and Labrador, which was home to only abandoned drive-in screens until 2019 when the town of Bay Roberts opened the Mad Rock Pop Up Dive-in.

David Simms is Bay Roberts’ marketing coordinator and manages the drive-in. He believes it’s the only one in the province and says the idea came from summer students who worked at the town’s tourist information center.

“A couple of them, who are friends of mine, came up and said, ‘Do you think a drive-in could work here in Bay Roberts?'”

Simms pitched the idea to his boss, who was “completely on board.”

“So we ended up racing with it. We have a projector, we have a screen, which is actually made from a boat sail. So it’s really typical Newfoundland craftsmanship.”

The Mad Rock Popup Drive-In in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, was launched by the city in 2019. The display is made from a ship’s sail, and director David Simms thinks it’s is the only drive-in currently operating in the province. (Submitted by David Simms)

Provide an experience

Simms says they’ve played older films but hope to expand into first-run films, possibly as early as later this year.

Being run by the city gives The Mad Rock a bit more stability. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have to rely on making a profit, the drive-in exists to give people that experience, to get them to come to our city, eat at our restaurants, and shop at our stores and finish their day off, you know, come see a movie with us,” he said.

“A lot of the drive-in is based on local support.”

Canada’s smallest province is home to two drive-ins. One of them is the Brackley Drive-in in Brackley Beach, PEI.

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Owner Bob Boyle says drive-ins in the east haven’t seen the same pandemic resurgence, likely because of restrictions on tourism.

“Here in the Maritimes, every drive-in has suffered during the pandemic,” he said. “Our turnover the first year we was down, I believe it was around 80%.”

As for other potential challenges facing drive-ins, Boyle notes that they have been able to overcome the challenges posed by the advent of VCRs and DVDs. He thinks the streaming challenges will impact movie theaters more than drive-ins.

“We offer an experience like no other, you know, you can sit under the stars and enjoy a movie, and I don’t see that changing in the years to come.”