After a pandemic renaissance, Canada's drive-ins still have stories to tell

Many enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years when restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced entertainment outdoors. But with indoor theatres reopened, what’s the outlook for the country’s drive-in industry?

From Bay Roberts to Flin Flon, Brackley Beach to Pilot Butte, Canada's drive-ins are open for another year

The Brackley Drive-In Theatre in Brackley Beach, P.E.I. Owner Bob Boyle says drive-ins have survived through technology change and the pandemic because they offer an experience like no other, under the stars. (Submitted by Bob Boyle)

In Flin-Flon, Man., home of Canada's northernmost drive-in theatre, it can take a while for the sun to go down in the summer months. 

"Our movies start so late because of the daylight in June. We'll be starting at 11:00 at night," said Dawn Hlady, co-owner of Big Island Drive-in.

The late start didn't seem to be a problem for Amanda Unrau last year.

"Oh, golly," she said, "I must've seen a dozen movies at least."

With summer on the horizon, Canada's forty or so remaining drive-in theatres are lifting the curtain on another season.

Many enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years when restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced entertainment outdoors.

Now, indoor theatres have reopened, but Canada's drive-ins still have plenty of stories to share, and not just the ones you can see onscreen.

Dawn Hlady is the owner of Big Island Drive-In Theatre in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Moviegoers can tune to 92.5 FM from their vehicles to hear the sounds of the big screen. (Submitted by Dawn Hlady)

From the outskirts of town

Drive-in infrastructure and marketing often harkens back to the 1950s, although new ones, both pop-up and permanent, have appeared in the last few years.

One of those is the 1000 Islands Drive-in in Gananoque, Ont. Owner Paul Peterson was able to take advantage of the extra space behind his indoor theatre by adding a permanent drive-in in 2021, starting with an inflatable screen for the first few months.

"It was an adventure," Peterson said, noting they had a good season running through the fall last year. He says they did even better in the winter by opening in December and January of this year. 

"We saw a lot of thermal pyjamas and lots of blankets and onesies and things like that," he said. 

The 1000 Islands Drive-In in Ganonoque, Ont., was open during the height of pandemic restrictions this past winter. Owner Paul Peterson says they even managed to eclipse their regular season. (Submitted by Paul Peterson)

Although the 1000 Islands Drive-in is new, Peterson has a lot of experience in the business. He previously owned the Mustang Drive-In in Picton, Ont., for 32 years. He says that while some drive-ins have disappeared, it doesn't mean the businesses are struggling.

"Drive-ins didn't close because they were failing…. Drive-ins closed because they sold the land for millions of dollars. But for the ones that have stayed and are successful, it's been boom years for the last 20," Peterson said.

"When drive-ins were popular, when they were being built in the 50s, they bought land that was right on the outskirts of town because it was cheap." 

In a lot of places in Ontario, that land is now prime real estate. 

That sentiment is reflected in the fact that Canview Drive-in near Niagara, for example, is listed for sale at close to $8 million.

Paul Peterson, right, and his son Jamie, left, are business partners, seen here at the snack bar of the 1000 Islands Drive-in in Gananoque, Ont. (Submitted by Paul Peterson)

'The town didn't want the screen to go dark'

But it's a different landscape in Saskatchewan, which is home to five drive-in theatres. One of those is Moonlight Movies Drive-in in Pilot Butte, which opened during the pandemic.

Owner Jason Longworth says compared to past drive-ins he's run, 2020 attendance at Moonlight was record-breaking.

He says they were even able to stay open through the winter that year, and while he notes that attendance wasn't quite the same last summer, "it's still doing nice."

Before opening Moonlight Movies, Longworth helped keep the Jubilee Drive-In in Manitou Beach, Sask., up and running. 

"When the [previous] owner retired, it was during that period of time that the changeover from film to digital was happening," he said. 

 "It was hard enough, as it is, to probably sell your business in a small town, and now you're selling a business that needs to buy a big capital purchase."

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When no buyer surfaced, the village of Manitou Beach bought the land and hired Longworth and his business partner to operate it, now called The Drive-In at Manitou Beach.

"The town didn't want the screen to go dark."

Outside of Moonlight Movies, which is nine kilometres from Regina, Longworth says drive-ins in the province are all far from major urban centres.

"It's amazing how they're doing it, because none of them are close to cities." 

While he does worry about the impact of streaming services shortening release windows, Longworth doesn't think it's an existential threat to drive-ins.

"Those theatres that remain probably are steady enough. They're just going to keep on coming along." 

Moonlight Movies in Pilot Butte, Sask. While the COVID-19 pandemic gave drive-ins a moment in the spotlight, at times there was also a dearth of new films released, which led many drive-ins to host classic movie nights like The Little Mermaid. (Submitted by Jason Longworth)

Coming back from extinction 

One province west, the situation is different. Prior to the pandemic there were no drive-ins left in Alberta. Some pop-up venues appeared in the last two years, as did the High River Sunset Drive-In, a not-for-profit run by volunteers in support of local charities. 

Jim Harrington used to work at drive-in theatres in the province.  He now lives in Edmonton and started the Facebook group Alberta Drive in Revival Initiative. He was happy to see the High River Sunset Drive-In open up, and is hopeful for more.

"We were the only Canadian province bereft of any of them. And certainly we still have no first-run drive-in in existence."

It's a similar story in Newfoundland and Labrador, which was only home to abandoned drive-in screens until 2019, when the town of Bay Roberts opened the Mad Rock Pop Up Drive-in.

David Simms is the marketing coordinator for Bay Roberts, and manages the drive-in. He believes its the only one in the province and says the idea came from some summer students who were working in the town's visitor information centre.

"A couple of them who are buddies of mine came up and said 'do you think that a drive-in could work here in Bay Roberts?'"

Simms brought the idea to his boss, who was "completely on board."

"So we ended up just running with it. We got a projector, we got a screen, which is actually made from a boat sail. So it's really typical Newfoundland craftsmanship." 

The Mad Rock Popup Drive-In in Bay Roberts, N.L., was started by the town in 2019. The screen is made from a boat sail, and manager David Simms believes it's the only drive-in currently operating in the province. (Submitted by David Simms)

Delivering an experience

Simms says they've been playing older films but are hoping to expand into first-run movies, possibly as soon as later this year. 

Being run by the town gives The Mad Rock a bit of extra stability. "We're fortunate in the fact that we don't have to rely on making a profit, the drive-in exists to give this experience to people, to get them to come into our town, to eat at our restaurants and shop at our shops and end their day off, you know, come and see a movie with us," he said. 

"A lot of the drive-in is based around supporting local." 

Canada's smallest province is home to two drive-in theatres. One of those is the Brackley Drive-in in Brackley Beach, P.E.I.

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Owner Bob Boyle says that drive-ins out east didn't have the same pandemic resurgence, likely because of restrictions on tourism. 

"Here in the Maritimes, all the drive-ins suffered during the pandemic," he said. "Our revenue first year, we were down, I believe it was around 80 per cent."

When it comes to other potential challenges faced by drive-ins, Boyle notes they were able to weather challenges brought on by the advent of VCRs and DVDs. He thinks challenges relating to streaming will have a greater impact on indoor theatres than it will drive-ins.

 "We deliver an experience like no other, you know, that you can sit out under the stars and enjoy a film, and I don't see that changing in the years ahead." 


Joseph Pugh is a writer with the Entertainment department at CBC News. Prior to joining CBC he worked with the news department at CHLY, Nanaimo's Community radio station, and taught math at Toronto's Urban International School. He can be reached at joseph.pugh@cbc.ca