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  • Writer's pictureJim Douglas

Everything You Need to Know to Host a Drive-In Event During a Pandemic

This spring, Tito Soto went to see a double feature at a drive-in movie theater. “It was one of the first fun things I’d been able to do during the pandemic,” he says. “It made me appreciate the concept of the drive-in a lot more. And I thought: We can definitely pull this off with a drag show.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, drive-in movie theaters were experiencing a mini-Renaissance. Though only a fraction remain — 305 as of October 2019, down from over 4,000 in their heyday in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theater Association — drive-in theaters offer a novel night out that hasn’t lost its appeal, despite most drive-ins having been turned into housing developments or shut down in favor of more technologically advanced, air conditioned indoor theaters. But the pandemic has added another layer to the movie theater revival: Event creators have seized on their open-air, naturally distant setting to stage concerts, festivals, and other performances safely. 

Of course, producing a drive-in show offers its own set of challenges. For creators looking to jump in on the drive-in trend, there are a lot of questions and considerations to explore before entering the drive-in market.

Get creative with your location, or lean on an established space

With just over 300 drive-ins across the nation, you might have to look around to find an established venue, whether through local connections or googling event spaces near you. 

Scott Hachey, guitarist of the Magic Beans and producer of the annual Beanstalk Music Festival in Vail, CO, was 20 minutes away from cancelling the event when he decided to try to make calls to every drive-in venue nearby. The Holiday Twin Drive-in in Fort Collins was the ideal spot, nearby and with lots of nature for listeners to enjoy while they rocked out in their cars. Tickets to the June event sold out in under an hour, and the show went so well that they put on another one in July. “The Colorado vibe is important for us, and we were scared of moving it into a parking lot, but the location was beautiful,” Hachey says. “It was a unique experience.You’re tailgating in the lot, and then all of the sudden the show comes to you.”

Soto, a producer and performer of the San Francisco drag show Princess, was inspired to create a safe space for drag shows after in-person shows were cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic. His upcoming show, Princess + Skyhigh Odditorium Present: Halloween Drive-In, will feature drag queens and kings, DJ sets, and aerial acrobatics — all performed on a stage in front of a vehicular audience, with a large projection screen so everyone can see the action and audio beamed directly into each car’s AM/FM radio. He teamed up with fellow drag performer and friend Drago Nesa, who runs Skyhigh Odditorium, an aerial school in Richmond that will be providing the venue, which already has bathrooms, for the event. All proceeds will benefit drag performers. “If anything, this whole pandemic has shown how resilient the drag community is,” Soto notes. 

Alex Crothers, the owner of the Higher Ground music venue in Burlington, Vermont, stumbled into drive-in events after getting a call from the local fairgrounds; a high school wanted to hold their graduation ceremony drive-in style. Local businesses and philanthropy agreed to help pay for the costs of building a stage and projection screen, which wasn’t cheap. “But it didn’t cost much more to leave it up all summer,” he says. Crothers has put on events using a four-camera shoot and a 40-foot high scaffolding holding a giant LED wall of screens. Lately, he’s booked several major music acts including Grace Potter and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. “Now that the [drive-in] concept’s more baked-in, acts are starting to trust it,” he says. Crothers and Higher Ground are donating all proceeds from their pop-up concerts (which he estimates might be $30,000 to $40,000 by the end of the pandemic) to charity. “It’s more something for us that we wanted to do in our community to help keep live music going, connect fans, and find opps for local musicians,” he says.

Consider regulations and permitting

“Staying up-to-date on all current guidelines is the most important thing,” says Anthony Black of Eye Heart, an Independent event producer, promoter, and experiential marketer based in San Francisco. After months of research and outreach, they partnered with Spider Ranch Productions to launch a series of drive-in concerts at Bradley Ranch Winery in Elk Grove, CA, which recently hosted a Chase Rice show. “Building out health and safety plans, and standard operations protocols to share with my team has been key to keep things top of mind and consistent.”

“If you are considering getting into the drive-in space the first thing you need to do is head to the website for whatever county you are considering hosting them in and read all the guidance on what is and is not approved for vehicle-based gatherings,” says Max Nied of Vital Events, who put on EDM events and have put on several EDM drive-ins since the pandemic began. The first thing his team does when they start their work day is to log onto the Alameda County COVID-19 dashboard, the dashboards for every county they are considering adding venues in, the California state COVID-19 dashboard, and the CalFire Incident dashboard. “In California, most counties now have specific guidance for vehicle based gatherings,” he says.

Lean on the community

In Vermont, Crothers raised all the money he needed to build his outdoor drive-in venue by calling up local businesses to support the initial high school graduation event. To put on their Halloween event, Soto and Drago have leaned on the drag community. Friends from the famous San Francisco queer bar The Stud (now looking for a new home due to the pandemic) are coming together in helping with stage, lighting, and setting up the right projector for the event. “It’s basically a big labor of love for the community so we can all gather together safely and experience live drag,” Soto says.

Prepare to teach your audience

Many drive-in events feature an FM audio system that beams directly into cars in the audience. This is relatively easy — just tune your radio to the correct station and you’ll hear the show through your car’s speakers — and it also helps keep attendees near their cars, rather than gathering in groups in the audience. But at Crothers’ first event, he says, “only about half the people got it.” At future events he focused on educating the audience on how to tune in, and now, he said, people “crank their car stereos, open their doors, or bring bluetooth speakers to create a nice surround-sound vibe.”

Get creative with tech

Soto and Drago’s drag show will incorporate digital tips for performers, a feature carried over from live-streamed Twitch drag shows during the pandemic. At the Beanstalk Music Festival, Hachey integrated an app-based food and beverage ordering system that worked great.

Don’t underestimate cost

Costs associated with drive-in events are especially high, given the necessity to rent or build a venue, plus extra costs for COVID-19 precautions (see below for more). That cost is inevitably passed on to the audience, who may be surprised by ticket prices  of $200 per car for an event. But organizers stressed car-sharing for a good time also comes with decreased costs per person, since most cars can hold four people or more.

Consider social distancing measures and safety issues

Drive-ins are naturally socially distanced events, but event planners should still consider safety the utmost priority when planning a pop-up event. Brian Drusky, of Drusky Entertainment, a booker and producer of shows in Pennsylvania, checks the temperature of each patron, and asks if they’ve recently traveled outside the country or been in contact with anyone who’s had COVD-19. Many event planners mandate masks for audience members outside of their cars, space cars out to promote social distancing, ensure the drive-in venue and bathrooms are cleaned regularly, and ask patrons not to gather in groups. They also triple-check their permitting requirements and made sure to keep in line with local and federal regulations regarding the coronavirus. 

Put people over profits

“Anyone who produces a live event during this pandemic needs to hold themself to the highest degree of responsibility possible in terms of providing a safe environment to their customers, their staff, and their artists, even if that comes at the expense of fun or profitability,” Vital Events’ Nied says. “Customers want safety and are willing to sacrifice traditional entertainment features in exchange. Fans want to be able to have an experience, post about it on social media, and not be worried about being shamed online for violating social distancing rules. if you can provide that, the finances will work out just fine.”

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