Drive-In Movies In The Time Of Coronavirus: 'This Is My Time To Shine'
When Preston Brown opened Hound’s Drive-In four years ago in Kings Mountain, he was taking a leap of faith. He was in the rental property and electronics business, but he longed for a life that revolved around movies. His father owned a movie theater when he was a child, and Brown missed it.
“It's got its own niche, I guess you could say that about it,” Brown said. “I like to see the customers happy, having a great time, enjoying their selves. So we bought some land and I kept thinking, ‘You know, I think I can open up a drive-in here.’”
A drive-in movie theater? In Kings Mountain? In the 21st century?
“Let’s be honest: I never really went to many drive-ins when I was young,” Brown admitted.
But the idea kept calling to Brown and his 62 acres in Kings Mountain, about 30 miles west of Charlotte. So, in 2016, he built one drive-in screen. That started selling out. A couple years later, he opened a second screen. That sold out, too. And now, there are three.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The coronavirus shutdown briefly forced Hound’s Drive-In to close its doors during March. But after a couple weeks, Brown realized that he actually had the perfect way to enjoy entertainment during a pandemic.
Social distancing is automatic when everyone is in their cars. A massive screen at the front of each terraced lot – graded on an incline like stadium seating – can broadcast movies or concerts or graduation ceremonies for all to see as car radios tuned to a specific frequency play the audio.
“It's like I told my wife: This is my time to shine,” Brown said. “I've got what people need and want, so I'm gonna shine as bright as I can and take advantage right now. Why not? So that's exactly what I'm doing.”
In the last few months, business at Hound’s Drive-In has quadrupled over the previous year, Brown said. Crowds have flocked to movies – the only slight issue right now is that studios are not releasing new films, so everything is old – and so many bands began requesting to use his space for concerts that Brown invested in a stage with state-of-the-art lighting.
A few big-name bands have even contacted him about stopping at Hound’s Drive-In for a drive-in tour, and Brown reluctantly says he can’t share details yet because “they want the privilege to announce it.”
Zach Nafey, an 18-year-old from Fort Mill, South Carolina, was at a showing of “Black Panther” last weekend with three buddies. They popped the back hatch of their SUV and spread out a blanket beneath the open trunk, lounging in their parking space four rows from the screen before the sun set and the movie lights turned on. Only one of their teenage cohort had been to a drive-in movie before.
“The food’s good, and it’s a lot of fun,” Nafey said. “I’ll be back.”
Drive-in movie theaters peaked in popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s, according to driveinmovie.com, when there were about 4,000 such venues in the country. There are now around 300 left; in the Charlotte area, there’s Hound’s Drive-In and Badin Road Drive-In, about 45 miles east in Albemarle.
A carload admission costs $20 at Hound’s Drive-In, and concessions – where everyone is encouraged to maintain six feet of distance in line – are cheap. People love it.
“They just want something to do,” Brown said. “There's nothing much to do out there with family. So when they come to the drive-in, and they get to experience the drive-in for the first time if they’ve never been, and they get to sit with their family in their space … everyone has a great time. It's just something to do to get away, get out of the house. Everybody's just tired of being home, I guess.”
Brown already envisions more concerts and other special events taking place at his drive-in during the week, with movies playing on weekends. It’s something he never could have envisioned four years ago, but this is the golden era for drive-ins.
“It’s going great,” Brown said. “I can’t lie.”
This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.
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