Yes, Drive-In Movie Theaters Are Opening Up

How Minnesota drive-ins are operating—with new social distancing guidelines
Aerial view of Sky Vu Drive-In Movie Theater in Warren, Minnesota in the springtime
An aerial view of Sky Vu Drive-In Theatre in Warren, MN.

Courtesy Sky Vu

Sky-Vu Drive-In Theatre is a good five-hour drive from the Twin Cities. It’s even a considerable drive from nearby Grand Forks, Thief River Falls, and Crookston. But that hasn’t stopped families from coming out for a movie, according to Tom Novak, Sky-Vu Drive-In’s head of marketing. On the weekend of May 8, the drive-in was the first in Minnesota to open for the season, showing Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sky-Vu (pronounced “sky view”) has been in the family since Tom’s father, Leonard Novak, bought it in 1971. Tom, his two sisters, and his brother (who now co-owns Sky-Vu) basically grew up there. “Movies were our life and they still are,” Tom says fondly.

This weekend (May 15-17), Sky-Vu is preparing to tackle its second weekend of business, and Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield is opening up for its first. The Long Drive-In in Long Prairie plans to open Memorial Day weekend. The three other drive-ins in Minnesota—Elko Drive-In Theater south of Lakeville, ValiHi Drive-In Theater in Lake Elmo, and Verne Drive-In in Luverne—have yet to announce their own plans to open, but that could change any day now.

(Update, 6/15/20: All of these theaters are now open for 2020!) 

Turnout for Sky-Vu’s opening weekend wasn’t bad, even with the colder weather. Drive-ins only operate seasonally, four months out of the year, which creates thin margins under the best of circumstances. “If you don’t make your money during that period, you’re going to go broke,” says Novak.

Of course, the bigger concern this season is the public health risk of COVID-19. Drive-in theaters have a chance to shine with traditional theaters closed until further notice, according to Associated Press. Gov. Walz’s stay-at-home order expires May 18, and Minnesotans are hungry for safe entertainment options that allow for social distancing. “People are scared—and that includes going to drive-in theater,” Novak says. “A lot of people don’t want to go out yet.” 

COVID-19 Changes at Drive-Ins

Novak describes the Sky-Vu’s new reality as a “gray area” that many businesses in Minnesota must now navigate. The drive-in’s walk-up concession window remains open, but has a strict capacity rules and limited menu to better observe social distancing. This season, people are also allowed to bring in outside food. (Other practices seen nationwide to make drive-ins safer include online payment, and spacing requirements between cars.)

“We’re an outdoor business,” he says. “If we put the clamps down on it a little bit, we can socially distance. It’s not a problem at our facility because people can stay in their car, and we encourage that.”

This summer will also feel different because of what’s playing. With traditional movie theaters shuttered, the film industry has delayed the release of blockbusters like the next James Bond and Wonder Woman films and the Top Gun reboot. Drive-ins will have to rely on older movies for longer. That means playing The Call of the Wild, released in the U.S. in late February, and Onward, which Disney pushed to Disney+ back in March. “We would love to show a brand-new family animated feature, but there just isn’t anything available,” says Novak.

In any year, drive-in movie theaters—many of which are gaining traction on social media—offer up unique nostalgia. “People want to show their kids what they used to do when they were children,” says Novak

A lot of questions about COVID-19 still remain. If the economy is able to open back up, Novak is optimistic about Sky-Vu’s chances. “I’m confident that the drive-in theaters will be in a great position to have one of their biggest seasons in years,” he says. “And I’m talking in like maybe 40 or 50 years.”

Note: Before heading to a drive-in theater this summer, be sure to check social media channels for updates, guidelines, expectations of visitors, and more.

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