New Brunswick

No blockbuster summer for N.B. drive-in theatres

Despite high expectations for a big season during the COVID-19 pandemic, the owners of two of New Brunswick's drive-in theatres say the summer fell short. 

Ticket sales at the Sussex Drive-In were down 30 per cent overall from 2019

Co-owner Don Monahan said the Sussex Drive-In had a lower turnout than expected this year. (Submitted by the Sussex Drive-In)

Despite high expectations for a big season during the COVID-19 pandemic, the owners of two of New Brunswick's drive-in theatres say the summer fell short. 

The Sussex Drive-In initially saw ticket sales rise from opening day in May to the end of June, for a 15 per cent increase compared to last year.

But those numbers started to drop when July hit — putting the drive-in down 30 per cent overall from 2019.

Co-owner Don Monahan expected good growth heading into the season. The regular theatres were closed, there was little to do and he had a slate of live performances lined up.

"I was very enthusiastic about how our numbers would end up based on the fact everyone was cooped up since the middle of March," he said. "The numbers did fall short of what I was anticipating."

The drive-in held a sold-out event in June with comedian James Mullinger and local bands. But live events in the following weeks failed to attract strong turnouts. 

Monahan, who also owns the adjacent campground, said he plans to continue with live acts — a first for the drive-in this year.

"That live feeling at the drive-in was always our goal and objective, perhaps I just have to think of bigger entertainment artists," he said.

Tina and Don Monahan own the Sussex Drive-In and an adjacent campground. (Casey Page)

The number of drive-in theatres in Canada is dwindling, with only about three dozen left across the country, according to Monahan. Those include other New Brunswick locations like the Neptune Drive-In in Shediac and the Ciné-Parc Satellite Drive-In in Bois-Blanc, near Paquetville.

But with the pandemic sparking hopes for a comeback, some businesses in the province decided to open up new, more temporary drive-ins over the summer. The Delta Hotel in Fredericton set up a screen for weekend showings. 

Owner Nathan Smithers of East Coast Amusements, which operates carnival rides throughout the Maritimes, opened the Hub City Drive-In as a "pop-up" theatre in Moncton when he was unsure if his regular business would be able to operate.

"The opening months were a lot stronger but it has kind of tapered off a bit now that there's more stuff available for people to do as the restrictions … lessen," he said.

Regular theatres reopen

When drive-ins first opened for the season in May, regular movie theatres were closed under COVID-19 restrictions. But many reopened early in the summer.

Sarah Van Lange, executive director of communications for Cineplex, said the company has recently started to screen new releases after reopening with older titles about seven weeks ago. Prices were lowered for previously released films.

"There has been demand, there has been interest," she said. "The numbers just aren't what they were before, because we've reduced seating capacity."

The movie theatre chain had reopened all 164 of its locations across Canada by Friday, including five in New Brunswick.

Cineplex had reopened all 164 of its locations across Canada by Friday. (The Canadian Press/Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

When regular movie theatres started to reopen in early July, Smithers said getting the rights to titles became limited because of restrictions the studios have in place.

"We noticed people heading back to some of the normal theatres," he said.

"We still get some cars showing up. But you can definitely see a noticeable drop in revenue."

The Sussex Drive-In has not felt the effect of regular theatres reopening. It had been showing in June many of the same classic titles that movie theatres began running in July.

"I tried to make sure that I never, ever played the same movie twice, so that way it always gave new content for the people to come out and watch it back at the drive-in," Monahan said.

Mostly older films 

As theatres across North America closed for months under COVID-19 restrictions, movie studios began pushing back new titles back as far as next year. It's a move aimed to boost profits once attendance returns to higher levels and most theatres are back in business.

But the lack of new movies to show has made it difficult for drive-ins to attract customers.

Smithers said the Hub City Drive-In has mainly offered older films. He is unsure if it will reopen next summer.

"You're basically showing movies that people may have already seen multiple times," he said. 

The Sussex Drive-In attributes the slower summer to the lack of new movies to screen. (Submitted by the Sussex Drive-In)

The Sussex Drive-In attributes the slower summer to the lack of new movies straight from the box offices. It showed its first new release of the season, Unhinged, a week ago.

With new titles starting to roll out, there's at least one expected for each of the coming weekends.

Monahan is hopeful attendance will start to bounce back, with the season extended until Thanksgiving weekend. While the numbers may have been short of expectations, he said many customers came out to experience a drive-in movie for the first time this summer. 

"I'm sure that will carry on through future years, having been that first experience for many younger people."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandre Silberman is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. He can be reached at alexandre.silberman@cbc.ca

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