Pandemic a mixed bag for drive-in movie theaters

While new drive-ins pop up around Milwaukee and Madison, an established one sees lower attendance.
Highway 18 Drive-in movie theater's neon sign
Photo by Celia Young
Highway 18 Drive-in movie theater's neon sign lights up when movies are showing.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at it, but the Hi-way 18 Outdoor Theatre is hurting. Despite the long line of masked patrons waiting for their popcorn or chicken strips at the candy-colored snack bar, attendance at the drive-in has dropped off since the coronavirus pandemic began.  

With impromptu drive-ins popping up outside of Milwaukee and Madison, Highway 18’s struggle to fill its 650 parking spots seems counter-intuitive. Drive-ins are thought to be making a comeback, but for the Highway 18 drive-in, the reality is more nuanced. As people limit their travel from home and as movie studios continue to delay releases or turn to streaming platforms, drive-in theaters may be as in danger as any small business during the pandemic.     

The Highway 18 Drive-in, located in Jefferson is a classic 1950s-era drive-in. With one large central screen and a play structure below it, the theater can fit up to 650 cars, according to owner Lee Burgess, who purchased and renovated the drive-in during his retirement. The theater is one some 300 left in the United States today — far less than the 4,000 or so in the country during peak drive-in popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, according to the New York Film Academy.   

Previously popular primarily among Baby Boomers, drive-ins have become — due to the current COVID-19 pandemic — one of the few entertainment options outside the home that allow patrons to stay physically distant and safe.

Visitors to the Jefferson drive-in on Aug. 7 enjoyed “Despicable Me” and “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”  

John and Cindy Ackerson of Janesville parked their a blue, convertible Chrysler Sebring.  in a prime location right in front of the screen and snack bar. The Ackersons, both in their 50s, are regulars at the Highway 18 drive-in. Cindy, wearing a ’50s-style dress covered in bright red cherries, with pearls, red heels and matching red hair, says she’s gone to drive-ins since she was a child. She takes “any chance I can get to put on my vintage clothes,” she says, and dress up for a night at the drive-in.   

Her husband, John, is just as passionate. He remembers seeing the first ever Star Wars movie seven times in a row at drive-ins in 1977. They both remember feeding coins into a Zoltar fortune telling machine at the Highway 18 drive-in when they were younger. 

The Ackersons weren’t the only couple out enjoying buttery popcorn and a heavy dose of nostalgia earlier this month. Kari Rozwadowski and fiancé Michael Geisel were excited to see a movie at the drive-in, but mostly to have something to do. It was their first time at a drive-in movie theater — and they, too, had come in style, seated in a 1965, forest green Ford Mustang convertible.   

As the sun began to set and the national anthem started to play (as is customary at several Midwestern drive-ins), there were a few empty spaces left in the back of the field. Burgess says that since the pandemic, he’s seen about half the number of cars he normally gets in a weekend night — dropping from about 200 to 300 cars to around 150 cars per night on a Friday or Saturday. The Highway 18 drive-in is now only open on weekends, because Burgess doesn’t expect as many visitors with no new movies to screen.  

People stand in line at snack bar at the Highway 18 drive-in.

Photo by Celia Young

Burgess says his business model is very similar to that of an indoor theater: He makes most of his money from concession sales, not tickets. But his business is subject to the weather, which can cancel showings.  

“We live in exciting times and we have to adapt,” Burgess says. “The only thing I can say is I think that drive-ins are today in a better position than indoor theaters from the standpoint that, even though our business is reduced, we are open and are at least making enough to cover our fixed costs.”  

How well his seasonal business fairs will depend on what happens next spring, Burgess says. If indoor theaters reopen and movie studios start making new films again will be big factors. Drive-ins will benefit alongside the larger indoor theater industry if business gets back to normal, Burgess says. His facility may do better if the new attendees he’s seeing become regulars. 

“I’m hoping that because we have gotten some new people who came only because they wanted to get out and have never been to a drivein before, that they like it enough that they will turn into regular customers and our customer base will grow,” he says.   

Burgess may  be facing increased competition in pop-up drive-ins, like the Duck Pond Drive-In in the Madison Mallards Baseball stadium, and the Milky Way Drive-in, located in Franklin. The Milky Way is home to the Milwaukee Milkmen baseball team. Technology allows these venues to show movies and host socially distant business conferences during the pandemic.  

Attendance at the Duck Pond Drive-In has been good, says Cassidy Setniesk, creative services manager for the Madison Mallards. The space has been used for both movies and business meetings.  

“Right away we saw a huge response,” Setnieski says. “We get pretty high attendance numbers for almost all of our shows. Obviously it has been a lot of trial and error but the outlook has been good and the turnout has been great.”

At the Milky Way Drive-in, business has provided “much needed revenue,” says Mike Zimmerman, CEO of Roc Ventures which owns the Milwaukee Milkmen. He says he may keep operating the venue as a drive-in even after the pandemic is over.  

But Zimmerman has felt similar pressures as the Hi-way 18 Outdoor Theatre. With no new movies coming out and being required to send movie studios a certain amount of revenue per show — even if a show is cancelled due to bad weather — Zimmerman says there’s a lot of risk involved in operating a drive-in. But Zimmerman’s found classic movies to be profitable, and has worked to negotiate a deal with the studios that better supports the Milky Way Drive-In.   

For Zimmerman, the pandemic has provided a silver lining in the form of a new business venture. And patrons eager to get out of their homes have found refuge in the nostalgic journey to a drive-in movie. As the pandemic drags on, however, it’s hard not to wonder how long baseball fields can rely on new drive-ins, and how long traditional drive-ins like that on Highway 18 can survive with fewer cars filled with moviegoers.

Celia Young is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.