Can Austin drive-in theaters, once a novelty, ride a boom year into the future?
Josh Frank always knew that Austin needed a drive-in theater. A visionary thought, maybe, but even he never saw 2020 coming.
A little more than a decade ago, Frank took over a vacant building on East Cesar Chavez Street. He says that the area, increasingly gentrified, looked much different at the time. The building’s neighbors were piñata stores, a church and taco landmark Juan in a Million. Frank’s six-year anniversary with then-girlfriend Jess was coming up. He painted a screen on an outside wall, put a projector on top of the car, brought some speakers from eBay and drove her into the alleyway for a movie night.
“I was thinking to myself, this is frickin’ awesome,” he says. "How could a town that has the best movie theaters in the country, between Austin Film Society and the Alamo and the Paramount, not have an Austin version of a classic drive-in?”
Frank’s date night worked in a couple ways. One, he married Jess. Two, it gave birth to Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In. For years, the venue’s been somewhat of a modern Austin institution, as the only permanent place within city limits to find the drive-in movie experience. Indoor cinemas — local dinner-and-a-movie titan Alamo Drafthouse, arthouses like Violet Crown Cinema and the national megaplex chains — have still reigned supreme, however.
Then the coronavirus came to town. The pandemic shuttered indoor cinemas, temporarily in some cases and for good in others. Even when the theaters were open, many movie fans were wary of sitting in an enclosed space for an hour and a half or longer.
The drive-in theater didn’t just survive. It thrived. Socially distant, outdoor businesses like Blue Starlite were suddenly the perfect entertainment for strange times. In the past year, Frank says his business’ popularity doubled "at least,” and private rental bookings approached triple the normal level.
New drive-in operators appeared, like East Austin’s Ultimate Drive-In and mobile Rocket Cinema. Familiar names got in on the act, like Austin Film Society, which has hosted several drive-in screenings at Pioneer Farms while the lights are off at its AFS Cinema. And car-centric venues broke out of the movie mold — Doc’s Drive In Theatre in Buda hosted at least one drive-in pandemic wedding.
“The drive-in movie took on a whole new reason to exist," Frank says.
Now, with vaccinations in arms, blockbusters back on the marquees and indoor cinemas reopening, the drive-ins hope that their newfound allure has a Hollywood ending.
From getting by to getting bigger
The early days of Blue Starlite would not foreshadow its success. Frank remembers hearing mariachi music through paper-thin walls from the neighboring church at the original location. He first screened public domain movies, and word of mouth spread about the quirky new thing to do.
“It became very quickly this little secret during the last days of the last version of Austin, when there was still a lot of these little weird things that people were making before it became more of a ‘city’ city,” he says.
Until 2020, Frank kept the drive-in going through “modest” ticket sales. It’s bopped around a few times, from the original site on Cesar Chavez to East Sixth Street to a previous Mueller-area spot. He’s always seen Blue Starlite less as a theater and more as an experience, refining what a drive-in can be: smaller, intimate, within the city instead of on the outskirts, where most such venues live.
When the pandemic hit, Blue Starlite didn’t have to change much about how it operated. After a decade of making ends meet, its model — a small lot of enclosed cars, no more than 20 per screen — was suddenly the safest night out in town.
Frank opened a Round Rock location two months before the pandemic began, and it was going well by the time business picked up. (That theater’s equipment was destroyed in a fire last summer; Frank says that “we bounced back really quickly, mainly because it was a good year for us.”) Three months into the pandemic, he reached out to Downtown Austin Alliance about collaborating on a way to bring movies back to the city center in a safe way, which led to a third Blue Starlite location on a San Antonio Street rooftop. His staff went from seven people before the pandemic to 24 across three locations.
Back at the flagship Mueller location, Frank introduced a chef-created food menu, as well as socially distanced “walk-in” screens. “Even though it might seem like veering off from the drive-in, it’s actually not. It’s expanding what a mini urban drive-in is about,” he says.
Major indie film distributors, looking to release their new projects, began to reach out more often. “Also during the pandemic, people have realized the different things you can do at a drive-in,” Frank says. He’d dabbled in alternative programming before (including a Susan Orlean book launch in Blue Starlite’s first year), and shows at the venue have now included stand-up comedy, poetry slams and music events. An urban drive-in can be a “new venue experience,” Frank says. “We’re now living in a pandemic world. There’s going to be a certain number of people who aren’t comfortable with a large group.”
Frank takes a lot of pride in Blue Starlite — “I build every one; it’s a very personal experience,” he says — and he dreams of locations in other cities. Maybe San Antonio and Dallas, or as far away as Portland and San Diego.
Drive-ins are now the more stable cinema, Frank says. But with that might come more competition.
The ultimate opportunity
From Blue Starlite, make your way to Pleasant Valley Road and head south a few miles, and you’ll find the Ultimate Drive-In. It opened last fall as a new project from Ultimate Outdoor Entertainment, which has rented mobile screening set-ups and more in town for 14 years.
“When COVID hit, a lot of outdoor movie companies started pivoting toward drive-ins since that was the only entertainment option for people to do under most state and local government guidelines,” says founder Darrell Landers. The site’s developer, Presidium, reached out to Landers’ company and said they had 5 acres they wanted to activate soon.
The Ultimate Drive-In is still a work in progress, but it currently can host 130 cars across two screens. Once construction is complete, they’ll consolidate to one 64-foot screen with digital projection and a 210-car capacity, Landers says. Having a “built” (or permanent) screen instead of pop-up screens is important, Landers says, because studios tend to require venues have them to show first-run features. Right now, Ultimate Drive-In is scheduling mostly classics. They also have an LED screen that can accommodate matinee shows before the sun goes down.
Like at Blue Starlite, there’s open-air space for car-free viewers at Ultimate Drive-In, and Landers says eventually there will be a full kitchen and sky-view deck suites, too. There are plans next year to expand to locations in Pflugerville and near the airport.
“I don’t think anyone expects to operate exclusively a drive-in that only shows movies in the post-pandemic era and be highly successful,” Lander says. “A lot of people realize these have got to become outdoor entertainment space. I need to do simulcast concerts. I need to do comedy.”
He calls it “the resurgence of the drive-in.”
A punk rock project
Justin Sherburn is sure there will be less interest in drive-ins next year, and that’s fine.
“I think just like everything else to come out of the pandemic, there will be this new resource,” says Sherburn, owner of Austin’s Rocket Cinema, a mobile drive-in theater that launched last year.
You might recognize Sherburn’s name. He’s also the mastermind behind acclaimed music group Montopolis. When the pandemic hit, Sherburn’s performance gigs dried up. He created Rocket Cinema as a way to survive and make money.
“I think that primarily, it’s my experience as a multimedia artist and composer which drew me to this,” he says.
It took a while to get the technical side of things nailed down, Sherburn says, but he now prides himself on what his company has to offer. They use a high-quality digital projector and a 40-by-26-foot screen. Unlike a permanently based drive-in theater, Rocket Cinema is “completely mobile,” with equipment running on a generator at venues like Pioneer Farms and Rogge Ranch House. A typical pop-up screening can host 60 to 70 cars or 500 to 1,000 people seated.
Sherburn says Rocket Cinema is all about community and sponsorships. Screenings (aside from private rentals) are organized with partners, like a May showing of “FM” held at Sam’s Town Point and sponsored by radio station KOOP.
As for the growth, Sherburn is not looking to build an A/V empire. As live gigs return for his music career, he might have to bring someone else on to help manage Rocket Cinema. Everyone who works for the company comes from the performance world: “As an independent artist, a lot of times you don’t really get that opportunity to network and build community,” he says.
Live music, dance and other types of performance will be integral to Rocket Cinema screenings. Sherburn is keeping the mobile drive-in focused on community art at a time when artists are having trouble finding space and venues in a boomtown.
“This is a punk rock, DIY answer to that,” he says.
More and more people are emerging from months of pandemic isolation (unless they never isolated to begin with), and Sherburn hits the nail on the head: “Everyone took for granted the ability to gather. That’s something that we can’t take for granted.”
That does not mean that gathering will look the same as it used to, and Austin’s drive-in operators are counting on that. Blue Starlite’s Frank and Ultimate Drive-In's Landers both see a generational shift happening in real time. For a long while, drive-ins were thought of as either midcentury relics or primarily rural institutions. When a younger audience discovers modern drive-ins alongside indoor cinemas and at-home streaming, Landers thinks the format could become just another way that we consume movies.
“The demand will decrease. It already has,” Frank says, pointing to the closures of what he calls “cash-grab pop-ups.” The established drive-ins that have been around for years will see a longtail benefit from the last year, he predicts: a new nostalgia.
“The old generation’s nostalgia was 30-plus years in the past,” Frank says. “There were fewer people that were like, 'Here, let me take you to a drive-in so you can see what it used to be like.’ ... One of the benefits — it’s not going to be this immediate thing, but over the next 10 years — I think all drive-ins that are permanent or longstanding are going to benefit from a new understanding of what’s special about drive-ins. Imagine people in their 20s and 30s who went for the first time during the pandemic, and in a couple years they have kids.”
He continues, “There’s going be a customer base that wasn’t there before. That’s just good all-around for people who are in the drive-in business.”
While he believes that movie theaters will never die, Frank says that the age of the multiplex might wane, and thanks to the pandemic and streaming releases, there will be fewer cinemas and fewer seats. We might emerge from the past couple of years with a “much stronger and more solid movie-watching industry,” he says about the change that could come. “Clearly, if a pandemic can bring the entire film-watching world to its knees, we need to rethink that.”
And as long as the cars keep coming, Frank is not operating Blue Starlite to get rich.
“It’s really great that people like me that have a passion for what they do," he says, "might be able to continue it for longer than originally we would have.”
Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor for the American-Statesman. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @webbeditor.
Where to find drive-in theaters in the Austin area
Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In: For a decade, it’s been Austin’s standard bearer for the drive-in movie experience, now with three area locations and multiple screens. (2015 E.M. Franklin Ave. and 300 San Antonio St. in Austin and 800 Harrell Parkway Blvd. in Round Rock; bluestarlitedrivein.com)
Doc’s Drive In Theatre: A family-friendly venue down south that opened in 2018, featuring a restaurant, a bar, tiny homes for overnight stays and more. (1540 Satterwhite Road in Buda, docsdriveintheatre.com)
Dripping Springs Drive-In: Currently doing private screenings, but after a brief hiatus, the operators say drive-in shows will return soon to the town out west. (23455 RM 150, drippingspringsdrivein.com)
The Globe Drive-In: Cult classics and family films at a 35-car drive in up north. (8017 Cele Road in Pflugerville, theglobedrivein.com)
The Last Drive-In Picture Show: If you don’t mind a drive, hit the road for a nightly double feature and prices that can’t be beat. (2912 S. Highway 36 in Gatesville, facebook.com/ThelastdriveinpictureshowGatesville)
Ranger Cattle: The Wagyu beef ranch hosts occasional drive-in movies on a big screen, with some free drinks and food to purchase. (12208 FM 969, rangercattle.com/drive-in-movies)
Rocket Cinema: Mobile drive-in from Montopolis composer Justin Sherburn. (rocketcinematexas.com)
Stars & Stripes Drive-In Theatre: Head to the land of Schlitterbahn for new and repertory films at a venue with a vintage vibe; burgers, milkshakes and more available from their 50’s Café. (1178 Kroesche Lane In New Braunfels, driveinusa.com/nb)
The Ultimate Drive-In: A newcomer in East Austin currently showing classic films on two screens. (1600 S. Pleasant Valley Road, theultimatedrivein.com)