The pandemic brought new audiences to drive-ins. Now, they're revving back to life this summer

Riding last summer’s momentum due to the pandemic, more of the provinces drive-ins will feature events and community markets, along with a slate of newer blockbusters and older classics.

Riding last year’s momentum, more drive-in theatres to host events, markets

Dawn Laing and her partner decided to buy the Mustang Drive-In theatre in 2019. They took possession in April 2020 at the peak of the pandemic's first wave. (Alex Lupul)

Dawn Laing, co-owner of the Mustang Drive-In theatre in Bloomfield, Ont., answered a recent phone call from CBC News with a handful of ice pops in her arms.

The colourful treats, destined for the freezer at the theatre she and her partner bought last year, are as clear a sign as any that the summer drive-in season in Ontario is getting underway. 

Laing opened last week with screenings of classics like Footloose and Zoolander — and with a plan to expand what her Prince Edward County business offers.

"We have music series, we have a big open-air flea market that starts on July 4th… we're really playing with what we can do here," she said. 

A concert at the Mustang Drive-in last summer. Laing says she has more music series planned for this year. (Matt Forsythe)

With few entertainment options that were safe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last summer brought new attention to Ontario's remaining drive-ins, of which there are about 15. 

Riding that momentum, the theatres are opening this month with more than just movies on the docket, with plans to host community events, markets and live music. 

Driving in on the red carpet 

Drive-ins are also once again playing a key role in Ontario film festivals.

On Sunday evening, attendees at the second edition of the Italian Contemporary Film Festival's Lavazza drive-in festival will watch the Canadian premiere of Robert De Niro's new movie, The Comeback Trail

In a homage to the glamour of festivals, they'll even drive over a red carpet on the way in to Toronto's Ontario Place, where the festival is being held. 

The twinkling lights of last year's Lavazza film festival, which features a program of Italian and international cinema. (ICFF)

"It's a special screening; we tried to invent a lot of things for it," said Cristiano de Florentis, artistic director and co-founder of the festival. 

"Instead of having hot dogs or popcorn, we are going to serve a full dinner, prepared by an Italian celebrity chef … with volunteers serving the audience with Rollerblades." 

The Toronto International Film Festival will also once again turn to drive-ins this coming September, announcing last week that it'll combine indoor, outdoor and in-car screenings. 

Hollywood flickers back on 

Across the province, drive-ins will also be featuring new releases — something that was notably absent last year. 

"Hollywood is open, and there's a lot more Hollywood blockbusters coming down. This Friday, we're opening with Fast and the Furious 9," said William Alexander, owner of the Muskoka Drive-in in Gravenhurst, Ont., in an interview last week.

Anticipating a busy year, Alexander has expanded his business to operate five nights a week. Like Laing, he's also hosting events for the community and has launched a Sunday food and art market.

The Muskoka Drive-in was transformed into an outdoor market on a recent Sunday. (Submitted by William Alexander)

"I was just on the phone to work out a graduation on the big screen, so the kids can come here, see their graduation, get a chance to kind of say goodbye to everybody," he said. 

So what happens after the pandemic ends, and indoor theatres reopen?

Both Alexander and Laing say they see the excitement around drive-ins continuing — and even de Florentis says he can imagine an open-air element in his festival after restrictions have ended. 

"Last year… so many people had never been to a drive-in before. And they came here for their very first experience," said Laing.

"I think what's happening is there was a renewed interest ... but it's sustained and building, because it's become part of people's summer traditions." 

A view of Starlite Drive-in Stoney Creek, Ont. on a dusky evening. The theatre is one of about 15 remaining drive-ins in the province. (Starlite/Facebook)


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