Northeast Indiana drive-ins share how they’re innovating during COVID-19 despite a lack of new films

Over the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of American life. Social distancing regulations have severely limited what activities people feel they can do safely while indoors. However, social distancing practices have led to an interesting outcome in some places across the country—a resurgence of drive-in movie theaters.

While sitting in your car to watch a movie outdoors may seem like a blast from the past in the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, there are two drive-in theaters carving out a niche for themselves right here in Northeast Indiana.

But as far as whether the pandemic is helping business or not, it’s mixed reviews.

The 13-24 Drive-In is located in Wabash, about 45 miles Southwest of Fort Wayne. It opened for business on August 23, 1951, and continues todaythanks to the generous support of community members who saved it and the Honeywell Foundation, which operates it.

The 13-24 Drive-In is located in Wabash.

Tod Minnich, CEO of the Honeywell Foundation, says the 13-24 Drive-In hasn’t seen as much of a surge in popularity as a continuation of interest. Between 2019 and 2020, there has not been much of a change in the number of moviegoers.

However, Minnich says the same number of people have been showing up for different types of films during COVID-19.

There have been no new movies to show this year, which (along with good weather) are “what usually drive attendance,” Minnich says. So moviegoers have been venturing to the 13-24 Drive-In to experience classic films instead. 

Minnich says that, in addition to showing older nostalgic movies, the 13-24 Drive-In has also branched out into live shows. Even after the pandemic, they have big plans for their live shows, with the venue having the capacity of more than 700 vehicles once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Workers at the 13-24 Drive-In wear masks.

The 13-24 Drive-In has also updated their offerings with a new app called Fanfood, which allows guests to pre-order snacks online before picking them up at the stand to reduce wait times and exposure, Minnich explains.

“We hope that in future years, we can deliver that right to the car,” he says.

Drive-in movies aren't complete without snacks.

While nearly everyone is eager for the pandemic to end, Minnich says that he hopes the popularity of drive-ins will continue.

“I think it’s just putting it back on people’s radar,” he says, “Either for the first time ever, or the first time in a long time.”

But the pandemic has not been a profitable season for all drive-in theaters. Just ask the Auburn Garrett Drive-In Theatre, about 25 miles north of Fort Wayne.

The Tri-Hi Drive-In, as it was known then, opened on May 16, 1951. In 1959, the theatre was renamed Garrett Drive-In, and in 1960, it became the Auburn Garrett Drive-In Theatre, as it is known today.

Operator of the Auburn Garrett Drive-In Theatre Bruce Babbitt says that unlike the overall trend in the U.S., attendance at the Auburn Garrett Drive-In Theatre has actually been down in 2020 compared to the 2019 season. Even so, their attendance has been stable overall.

“We really don’t have a lot of new movies to show, so we’ve been showing older movies and movies that are on several different platforms streaming,” Babbitt says.

The Auburn Garrett Drive-In is located at 1014 IN-8 in Garrett.

However, he has noticed something about the crowds that have been attending the Auburn Garrett Drive-In Theatre during the pandemic.

“It runs the age gamut,” he says. “I’m surprised at the number of teenagers who have come to movies that came out in the ‘80s.”

As for the future of the Auburn Garrett Drive-In Theatre, Babbitt says they plan to continue to show traditional films. On top of that, they have also begun showing concert movies made specifically for drive-ins. Babbitt predicts that they will branch into more alternative content at the drive-in since streaming services are becoming so popular among movie-seekers.

The 13-24 Drive-In is hosting a summer concert series in 2020.

In terms of how drive-ins, in general, will fare in the future, Babbitt is unsure how it will continue to go.

“This could be a fad or something that sticks around for a while,” he says.
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