The pandemic created a pair of problems for the Admiral Twin Drive-In, a historic movie theater built in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
For starters, the theater was shuttered for two months beginning in mid-March, only a few weeks after it had opened for its 2020 season, during the nationwide lockdown amid the pandemic’s first wave. Next, Hollywood delayed many major film releases – usually a major driver of ticket sales for movie theaters, recalls owner Blake Smith, 54.
Once the lockdown lifted, Smith had to figure out how to provide entertainment when there weren’t many new films. In a typical year, he says, “it would’ve been a real disaster for me.”
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Smith, who owns a second theater he bought in 2019, the Starlite Drive-In based in Wichita, Kansas, says he adapted to the challenges by finding creative strategies that allowed his theaters to thrive despite the pandemic. It’s a common theme among small-business owners during a crisis that sent shockwaves through the economy. Many pivoted by investing in new technology, such as digital payment systems, or by stocking up on goods to avoid shortages, a survey in July from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found.
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“If you’re a small-business owner, I think you’ve got to really open your eyes and listen to what’s going on and make the best decision for your business,” Smith says.
Smith listened to his customers and realized that people wanted to be entertained – especially after the nationwide lockdowns last spring. “You can only sit in your house for so long,” he points out.
To attract moviegoers, Smith turned to older movies – airing retro films such as 1985’s “The Goonies” and 1983’s “The Outsiders” last summer and fall. The latter film has a special place in the Admiral Twin Drive-In’s history, since one of the movie’s scenes was shot at the drive-in.
“That’s really our claim to fame. We still get a lot of people that come out here just to take pictures,” Smith says.
Smith says he booked special events such as concerts and religious services, and clients sought out his venue because of concerns about indoor events and the risk of infection. “I had three or four different churches that were doing something every Sunday,” Smith recalls.
Though it wasn’t the type of season that Smith had envisioned for his business, he says 2020 ended up being a stronger year for the Admiral Twin Drive-in, partly because of the economics of airing old movies and hosting events. Older films are less expensive to air than first-run movies, which require a larger payout to movie studios. Revenue from events “went to the bottom line pretty fast,” he says.
Drive-in movie operators were able to pivot during the pandemic because of the nature of their industry: They operate outdoors, where there’s plenty of space between cars. Indoor movie theaters struggled to adapt, given concerns about exposure to the coronavirus, as have other businesses reliant on indoor or in-person services, such as restaurants and bars.
It’s a change of fortune for the drive-in movie theater industry, which has shrunk from 447 locations in 1999 to 305 today, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
“Who would have known the drive-in would become cool again in 2020 during such a hard time,” Smith says.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Small-business strategy for projecting success: How a drive-in theater owner pivoted amid the pandemic