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In  summer on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, one of the greatest shows on Earth begins promptly at dusk. But if you’ve already seen the sun set on the Northumberland Strait and, instead, want to see Tom Cruise save the future on a screen the size of a hot air balloon, you’ll have to drive a couple of clicks due south, park your car in a field, grab a pair of headlight covers, and wait until dark.

“We’re in the movie business,” chuckles Bob Boyle, who owns Brackley Drive-In Theatre with two screens and space to host 500 vehicles. “It can be complicated.”

The past three years have been hard for Atlantic Canada’s good, old-fashioned, weekend drive-ins. Thanks to COVID-19,
Hollywood stopped making the blockbuster action flicks and creature features that proprietors of big outdoor venues typically need to attract car-cocooned audiences. Meanwhile, streaming kept erstwhile moviegoers away in droves.

But Boyle, a former member of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps who bought the business from his father George in 2004 and runs it with his wife Marcie Boyle, thinks Brackley and others in the region may be ready for a comeback. “Like a ’57 Chevy,” he says, “the value of a drive-in doesn’t go away.”

His attendance numbers, which he says are only off pre-pandemic levels by 10 per cent, certainly back up the belief that Atlantic Canadians are returning. The same seems true over in Nova Scotia at Valley Drive-In, near Cambridge Station, where whole stretches of highway once resembled the cruising scene from American Graffiti on certain sultry summer nights. “We’ve been averaging 150 cars a night,” says Kirk Longmire, a financial planner who manages the operation for the local Lions Club. People aren’t lining up the way they once did, but he does say, “We have some who come almost every weekend.”

New Brunswick’s Sussex Drive-In owner, Don Monahan, who also owns nearby KOA Campground with his partner Tina Monahan, is also seeing solid traffic. “We’re seeing average car nights of 100 to 150, but we’ve also had some big evenings where we’ve had 225 to 250 vehicles,” he says.

Longmire echoes Boyle’s sense that yearning for a simpler, safer time is bringing many moviegoers back. “I think people love the idea of better days gone by,” he says. The drive-in was, after all, the iconic hang-out for generations of teenagers, now all grown up.

And more people showing up with tkids. “They’re coming with lawn chairs and blankets and pillows,” says Tina Monahan. “They’re putting whole patio sets into the back of their pickup trucks and SUVs, and tailgating just as if they’re attending a football game.”

Whatever their reasons for going, people expect a certain kind of experience when they arrive.

Boyle says his father George tapped into his own nascent nostalgia one day in 1991, while driving his Honda scooter from his home in Winsloe towards Brackley Beach. “He was semi-retired, and on his travels, he discovered the drive-in theatre there. It has been closed for a year and covered in weeds. He came home, went to sleep, and woke up the next morning with an idea that families would want to return to a simpler time. He could remember his first date with my mom at a drive-in. So, this kind of took him back to that moment.”

Boyle, who eventually became a soldier, learned the business in summer, running the projector at age 19 after leaving high school.

Since then, he’s carefully maintained his dad’s vision, especially the 1950s vibe that resonates throughout the facility, including the canteen, vintage Coca-Cola machine, jukebox, and Morris Minor car on display. And there’s the music. “That’s really important,” he says. “Now, whenever our daughter goes anywhere and hears 1950s and ’60s music, she refers to it as ‘that drive-in music.’”

Longmire’s experience was different. “The Valley Drive-in was quite something back in the day,” he says. “In the 1950s, right through to the ’70s, it was very popular with its own carousel and swimming pool. But after that, it had been run by a bunch of private operators and kind of downgraded. It just wasn’t being maintained.”

During the 1980s and ’90s, his Lions Club ran a weekly drive-in bingo there every Tuesday, its biggest project. By 2000, the municipality had taken over the property, which had fallen into disrepair, and was threatening to demolish it.

Not wanting to lose their biggest fundraiser, the Lions Club wrote a proposal, scraped together its last $25,000, bought a bunch of equipment, and relaunched the drive-in. “We went on a wing and a prayer and also ended up borrowing money,” Longmire recalls. “But in our first year, we were able to pay back that loan.”

Like Brackley, the Valley exudes a certain devil-may-care charm, but Kirk doesn’t think that’s why people return. “I can tell you it’s not like what you imagine it was in the ‘50s. All the antics in the back rows of the drive-in? Well, I’ve walked those back rows, and that doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as people suppose.”

Even so, he concedes, “Everybody I talk to who goes there does feel the nostalgia … You know it’s a drive-in when you get there. It has the posts where the speakers used to be (though, now, you tune into an FM station for sound). The ramps you drive up on so that your car is pointed towards the screen? They’re there, too. It definitely has the look.”

Don and Tina Monahan bought the campground, which sits on the route between Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John, in 2019. They think that business has a lot to do with the number and type of clients they now see at Sussex Drive-In, which dates back to 1967. “People would come for a movie, but because it doesn’t get dark here in June and July until 9:30, the show wouldn’t wrap up until one or two in the morning,” Don says. “So, folks took tents and trailers with them.”

The Maritime couple, regular campers themselves, saw an opportunity to improve the amenities and build a hospitality business for themselves.

“Years ago, it was a place for the teenagers would go and have a great time,” Tina says. “Now, parents are bringing their children out. They’re not just going to a cineplex and sitting there and watching a show. They have their dog and their snacks … and their furniture. They’re making a whole night of it.” Adds Don: “Disney movies are a better revenue stream for us right now.”

If there is a definitive drive-in feel to the place — which, like Brackley and Valley, prides itself on employing local young people in the summer — it’s more reminiscent of Father Knows Best than Rebel Without a Cause.

“Our ultimate goal is to offer live entertainment,” Don says. “If you can’t actually see the artists performing from your car, you will be able see them on the screen, which is (comparable) to anything you might find at any (big events) centre. Also, in future years, we’re not going to restrict ourselves in terms of vehicles. It will be more of an open-field type of venue where we will bring in a big artist. So, this will not only be a drive-in, it will be a live-music event space.”

For now, though, their plan is to feed what seems to be a growing appetite among pandemic-weary Atlantic Canadians to get out and have some fun in the sun (or dark) for a change. And, they and their peers agree, not a moment too soon.

“Oh my God, but COVID was difficult,” Boyle winces. “It was challenging in ways that I never imagined. Before 2020 and 2021, I never thought that we wouldn’t actually have movies to play. I mean, even if you go back to World War One and Two, there were still movies in the cinemas. That didn’t stop. But, during COVID, everything came to halt.”

Longmire sometimes wonders whether the pandemic exacerbated a trend that was already underway. “The streaming services have changed. The movie release dates have changed. Some of these movies are now going to streaming within a month of theatrical release, so if that happens … well, it kills our business model … Everybody in the theatre business is trying to figure out the new reality.”

And perhaps the past three years offer some lessons about how to keep attracting audiences in that new reality.

 “During COVID, we had to be quite creative in coming up with alternative content that people would want to come back and see on the big screen,” Boyle says. “We went back over the years to see which movies really had an impact here at the drive-in and how to pair those together. We also tried different types of events, like simulcast concerts that were still being produced, particularly for drive-ins. We did a live comedy show, a high-school graduation, and even an elementary school graduation … Anything that would keep us on people’s minds.” 

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