Return of the Drive-In Theater

The pandemic renewed interest in an American movie tradition last summer. Will there be a sequel?

Peter Tonguette
Moviegoers at Skyview Drive-In

Since their film and video theater closed last year due to the pandemic, leaders at the Wexner Center for the Arts have kept audiences engaged through robust online offerings. Sometimes, though, you just have to go to the movies. 

Such was the case in April, when the Wex presented the 25th installment of Ohio Shorts, a festival of short films by auteurs statewide. The program, which was subsequently made available online, had its premiere at the South Drive-In—a long way from the Wex’s home turf on the campus of Ohio State University. 

“It was very cold that night, so we were a little bit worried,” says David Filipi, director of the Wex’s film and video department. “But I think we had 100 cars, and people were really happy.” 

Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of Central Ohioans have discovered or returned to drive-in movie theaters, once a mainstay of the cultural landscape. The area’s two surviving drive-ins—South in Columbus and Skyview in Lancaster—reopened first among all entertainment venues, thanks to their car-based, low-risk format. 

Despite having a captive audience, South owner Bryon Teagardner gives a mixed verdict on the first pandemic-era season—neither thumbs up nor thumbs down. Although many shows were selling out, attendance numbers were still half of what they might have been without health restrictions. 

“Between the capacity limitation and Hollywood putting no new movies out last year, that hurt us quite a bit,” Teagardner says. 

To stay solvent, he rented the drive-in to live acts, including musicians and comedians, which was part of what saved it from ending the year in the hole. Even so, moviegoers turned up reliably enough that Teagardner extended the season, which normally ends just after Halloween, through mid-December. “I still wanted to provide that safe place for the South End community as long as I could, as long as I wasn’t taking a loss,” he says. 

This year, South opened in March. “People were itching to get out,” says Teagardner, who feels good about the year ahead, despite continued capacity restrictions and an iffy release schedule from Hollywood. 

Walt Effinger, who owns Skyview Drive-In with his wife, Cathie, reports that business last year was strong. He opened his theater in April, and he foresees another good season, one likely to include live acts. “This year, with more vaccinations occurring, hopefully the governor will relax some of the restrictions and make it 

even better.” 

Meanwhile, the Wex’s partnership with South is set to continue. Although Wex officials anticipate their own theater reopening in the fall, they acknowledge that they are drawing audiences they never would have reached were it not for the persistent appeal of that artifact of midcentury American society—the drive-in. 

“Usually people have to come all the way to campus, and for some people campus might as well be in a different country,” Filipi says. “We’re taking our events to a completely different part of town.” 

Teagardner says the same is true for the theaters. “We did see a lot of new people coming in that had never been to a drive-in before.” 

Coming Soon 

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” June 6, 9 p.m., South Drive-In, presented by the Wexner Center for the Arts