$55 per car for a drive-in, and more ways the pandemic is changing how we watch movies

With fewer movies to screen and new safety precautions, theaters are adjusting, and attempting to provide safe alternatives to seeing movies in traditional spaces.


As states begin to reopen, many Americans are seeking safe, affordable things to do. Movie theaters are a traditional staple of summer, offering a two-hour block of air-conditioned entertainment. 

A trip to the movies this summer is likely to be very different, starting with what you'll see on the big screen. Many studios have halted the release or production of what were supposed to be this year's summer blockbusters. Disney pushed the release date of "Mulan" back to August 21 as coronavirus cases rise, for example, and Warner Bros. postponed the release of Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" for the second time to August 12. 

Chains have also announced plans to limit capacity and encourage or require mask-wearing, among other precautions. AMC, the largest U.S. chain, originally announced that, when it reopens 450 theaters on July 30, viewers would not be required to wear masks, for example. After an outcry, the company reversed itself and said masks will be necessary. Viewers who don't have one can buy one for $1 at the theater.

Even so, infectious disease experts are still not sure going to a traditional movie theater is safe yet. "It's way too early to go back to movie theaters," says Dr. Ravina Kullar, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at Expert Stewardship in Los Angeles. In response, some viewers are considering alternatives, and some businesses are seizing the opportunity: A new drive-in movie theater is opening in Brooklyn, but it's charging viewers $55 per car (up to 7 passengers per car) and $35 per motorcycle. 

Here's what you can expect if you do venture to a movie theater this summer, and some safer alternatives.

Drive-ins are making a comeback

One retro movie-watching option that has reemerged amid coronavirus concerns is the drive-in movie theater, where customers can view movies from the safety of their cars. In some areas, viewers can get that experience at a nominal cost: In Hockley, Texas, for example, the Showboat Drive-In is charging $8 per person. 

In big cities, though, the situation is different. In Brooklyn, the new Skyline Drive-In NYC is now an option, but an expensive one, especially given that it's showing older films such as 1995's "Braveheart." Viewers can order food from food trucks on site. Pedestrians and bicyclists will be accommodated soon, according to the theater's website.

In Chicago, the Chicago Drive-In is charging between $30 and $50 per car.

There are about 315 drive-in movie theaters remaining in the United States, according to Drive In Movie.com, and most play older movies.

You can also stream new movies from home 

Instead of releasing movies to theaters, some production companies have decided to release films directly onto streaming services and cable providers' on demand services, at price points of $20-$30. That trend was already emerging before the pandemic, but is now more appealing to customers who want to watch new movies from the safety of their own homes.

For example, you can rent Judd Apatow's latest, "The King of Staten Island," for $19.99 on Amazon Prime Video, whether you have an Amazon Prime subscription or not. In early June, Netflix distributed Spike Lee's new feature "Da 5 Bloods" for free to subscribers. 

It's way too early to go back to movie theaters.
Dr. Ravina Kullar
infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist

How and when movie theaters plan to reopen

AMC will only fill theaters to 30% of capacity at first and eventually increase to 40% and 50% capacity, according to The Hollywood Reporter

Regal, which plans to start reopening July 10, is also requiring that viewers wear masks and capping capacity at 50%, according to a statement on the company website

Cinemark, which plans to have theaters reopened by July 17, is only "encouraging" masks, not requiring them, unless it is mandated by local health officials. The chain will also "have limited capacities that meet or exceed local ordinances and the seats adjacent to parties will be automatically blocked upon ticket purchase," according to a statement on the company's website

Because the amount of new releases is limited, some traditional theaters are playing older movies at a discounted price. In Dallas, Texas, for example, Cinemark 17 is playing 1999's "The Matrix" for $5.

Doctors aren't sure if a trip to the movie theater is safe yet

Even though theaters will be opening back up, doctors urge caution. Theaters can be a "breeding ground for coronavirus," says Dr. Kullar. 

Even if theaters sell fewer tickets and keep viewers a few seats apart from one another, you're still indoors — where studies have found Covid-19 is more likely to spread. 

"You're in a closed environment," she says. "There is no ventilation system and you're stuck in an air situation that might be spreading the virus. That's why its been a recommendation to stay in outdoor spaces if you do have people you want to get together with." 

If you live in a city that has an outdoor movie theater or a drive-in, those would be safer options, she says. Until cases go down, though, Kullar recommends holding off on visiting a movie theater: "Why would put yourself in a closed space and potentially risk contracting Covid-19?" 

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