The Drive-In: driving forward cinemas’ return?

Who would have thought, six months ago, that drive-in movie  theaters would be the hot ticket in 2020? Mike Hope, enterprise director at advertising firm Pearl & Dean, investigates a resurgent — and pandemic friendly — cinema solution.


UP UNTIL MARCH this year, it’s fair to say that working in the cinema ad sector really was the place to be. Admissions had been at a record high and advertisers seemed to have woken up to the fact that cinema is one of the few places where they could properly engage with our valuable audience in an environment where they were relaxed, happy away from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life…. and just as we were all feeling very pleased with ourselves, everything got brought to dramatic halt and the taps were turned off.


Cinema post-July 2020…
Here at Pearl & Dean, we recently hosted a webinar under the title “Return To The Big Screen” to provide our clients with some insight into how cinema might look from July onwards as lockdown eases and cinemas reopen.


We invited exhibitor and studio representation, marketing (Cinema First) and a representative from the outdoor/ drive-in cinema sector. The first thing to note was that there seemed to be a universal desire to put aside perceived competition and a genuine willingness to collaborate to bring audiences back to the cinema. The studios are there to ensure quality film product is available, exhibition is making sure measures are in place to ensure customers are safe, the marketing function is important to give exhibition an understanding of how people feel about returning and to how to communicate with them to help give confidence and drive-in cinema to…


Hold on. Drive-ins… Why?
Actually, how is drive-in cinema going to help, not hinder, the audience returning to cinemas with real roofs? Drive-in cinema can work as a safe catalyst to help audiences reacclimatise after months of captivity and encourage them back to our screens. There is a “but” — the drive-in experience must be of a quality to which cinema audiences have become accustomed.


Working with the likes of The Luna Cinema, Nightflix and Rooftop Film Club, all of which have a pedigree in outdoor cinema events and drive-in, there is an opportunity to kick-start the cinema-going audience safely without compromising the experience. If the experience is good, then I believe that this will help to reignite the appetite for cinema-going and hopefully increase the confidence in doing so. In turn, I see this contributing to cinema admissions returning to pre-pandemic levels.


RIGHT NOW IN THE US, while there are few fresh films available, I understand that some friction exists between the mainstream exhibitors and outdoor operators. It would appear mainstream exhibition is putting pressure  on the studios to limit the licenses for home entertainment titles to themselves, hindering the outdoor operators from showing films that have traditionally been their life-blood. From the feedback received from our webinar, I am hopeful that the wider members of the cinema industry in the UK will not head down a similar path.


Before going into lockdown, admissions were at the highest they have been since the 1970s. Audiences have continued to grow despite the prevalence of alternative ways to view cinematic content. The availability and popularity of streaming services and outdoor/pop-up cinema grows every year, but this is not at the expense of cinema visits. Indeed, in the latest wave of FAME research it is shown that the higher the number of in-home streaming channels, the more likely the household is to be one of heavy cinema-goers. A range of options feeds the appetite, so the more likely they are to visit their local cinema to sate that hunger.


The word of caution? “Experience”.
So, can drive-ins help revitalise our industry? I am obviously not saying that drive-in and outdoor cinema is the magic solution — far from it — but it can play its (important) part in aiding our road to recovery. It will be no surprise that with the current situation, we have seen a host of new drive-ins pop up, much as with outdoor cinema, wishing to capitalise in this area. Some are from established operators such as the ones mentioned earlier, who have adapted or brought back formats that they have worked with before to move with the times, and will provide a premium experience for their visitors. There are a number of “event companies” that have appeared from nowhere to take advantage of the situation.


Due diligence — it’s common sense
Without being patronising, I’d advise any potential partners of drive-in operators to do some due diligence before committing. Key things to check on, apart from the history and experience of the company, is how they address things such as social distancing (including toilet facilities), sound delivery (do they have an OFCOM licence [or its equivalent in other territories — Ed] for FM transmission or are there alternative means of delivering quality sound?), quality of screen/and or projection used (not all LED screens are of the same quality, and projection only really works after dusk!). How is the food and beverage offering being handled to adhere to government guidelines and safety of all?


I’m no expert, but to me all of the above fall into the “common sense” category. The reason to reiterate these points is due to the huge influx of demand and excitement we have experienced from advertisers looking to get involved with drive-ins as soon as we went to market with the opportunity.


After weeks locked down, there is to be associated with events where people can finally get out of the house and be together to enjoy quality entertainment in a social environment (from the safety of your own car!). In that excitement, I have seen occasions where the focus on the end goal has been at the expense of the usual checks and measures.


Why does someone in cinema advertising belive he has the right to preach about such things in a publication targeted at those who are far better qualified to share their opinions on such matters?


First, having involved Pearl & Dean with outdoor cinema for over 10 years now, I hope I have gained a bit of experience of what works, what doesn’t and what I am happy to pin the company’s reputation to in this area. Second, and more important, is the fact that we work closely with advertisers daily and have a good steer on when things are good or not in the advertising market. While cinema advertising revenue is not the most important business element when it comes to the sector as a whole, advertising spend does tend to be an accurate indicator of where our economy is heading. Advertising tends to be the first to feel the pinch when we are headed towards a recession and likewise the first to feel an uplift when recovery occurs. For that reason, it’s useful to share some of our findings from in the past few weeks (see panel).


Advertisers miss the cinema, too
The good news is that there was genuine disappointment from advertisers when cinemas closed their doors. Relationships between media agencies and companies such as Pearl & Dean are probably not that dissimilar to those between exhibition and distribution. We get along most of the time, but negotiations can get heated. One might not be too shy in taking a pop at the other if the opportunity presents itself! The many discussions we had when cinemas were forced to close and the response and support from advertisers and agencies was a pleasant surprise at best and often positively overwhelming. It was clear that our advertisers truly value the cinema experience and see it as an integral part of consumers’ daily lives and key to their marketing strategies.


As we see glimmers of hope coming out of lockdown, we have seen support return. Advertisers are keen to know how quickly they can begin to advertise on cinema again, albeit tempered with an air of caution, the need to understand how this is going to be done safely and with an assurance of what film product is going to be available.


At a time where there is limited availability of fresh films, we could see cinemas expanding the use of their screens to show even more alternative forms of content than they did prior to lockdown.


So, in answer to the initial question, drive-in and outdoor cinema could play an important role in seeing our industry return to strength without cannibalising the core cinema offering. In the same way that we have seen some circuits collaborating more closely with a raft of home entertainment services, I would like to see the same happen with reputable outdoor cinema operators, as we emerge into the new world after lockdown. If all members of our industry work together, we can realistically expect to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever.



Advertisers’ sentiment and the drive-in proposition

WHEN WE WENT to market with the drive-in proposition, the response from advertisers was a tidal wave of positivity. They understood how it fits in with the restrictions we face and saw the value for their brands to ride on what could be the euphoric wave of revnewed social interaction.


They loved that this could extend to other forms of entertainment such as music, comedy — even theatre.


The dialogue around drive-in has enabled us to talk to them in depth about opportunities in our other cinema circuits and we have started booking ad campaigns again from July onwards.


My experience from the advertising world gives me confidence that this will be replicated in consumer behaviour. The first wave of results from research carried out by Cinema First should be available shortly which will gauge the public’s thoughts on coming back to the cinema post-lockdown, but from our experience over the past few weeks, I would happily put a wager on it looking something like this: Consumers are  desperate to get to normality. Cinema is high on their agenda. A portion of the population may be nervous of enclosed environments such as restaurants and cinemas and it is this group for which drive-in cinema has a really important role to play.


For all cinema fans, the opportunity to visit a drive-in or outdoor cinema will be an exciting proposition and one that they will feel safe in doing. This will not detract from the desire to visit their local cinema, but may well enhance it.