In summer of coronavirus, Fort Worth drive-in movie theater becomes one of few escapes

June 10,2020


See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Jack Howland here.

Drive-in movie theater provides escape during coronavirus social distancing

Coyote Drive-In movie theater reopened in early May and has sold out every night since then. They are operating at a lower capacity and have procedures in place to comply with social distancing and to limit contact.

Before the sun set over Fort Worth and the lights from the projectors flickered on, Crystal and Ryan Kirby backed their pickup into a spot close to screen number 1, the truck bed transformed into front-row seats.

They had packed an inflated air mattress and enough pillows and blankets to cradle them and their niece and nephew. Crystal and Ryan are reading the Harry Potter books to the kids, who are living with them this summer, so they wanted to bring them to see the 2002 adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” on the big screen.

And since they hadn’t “really been anywhere” for a while as a coronavirus precaution, they wanted to get everyone out of the home in a way that felt safe, Ryan said.

The staff of Coyote Drive-In in downtown Fort Worth had instructed them on a recent Wednesday night to park between any of the numbered signs spread out in the gravel parking lot. Due to Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandate that businesses limit capacity, drive-in staff planted hundreds of signs in every other space to enforce the rule and maintain social distance. Patrons are asked to stay inside their vehicles or sit in front of them.

The Kirbys felt as if they were in their own private theater, their radio turned to 107.3 to play the audio of the movie. But it was never lost on them they were enjoying a movie with a crowd once again.

“We’re in our own car — we’re not around a bunch of people and we’re confined to our comfortable space here,” Crystal said, seated in the truck bed. “It makes it less stressful, but also exciting.”

The Fort Worth Coyote Drive-In, one of a handful of remaining drive-in theaters across North Texas, has always been about providing a cinematic experience that feels more like an adventure. A throwback to another era, when families or friends would pack into a cool car on a hot summer night, watching a movie together underneath the stars.

In the summer of the coronavirus pandemic, the drive-in theater has become vital again.

Because all of a sudden it’s one of the few places to see a movie.

Many theater chains across the country have stayed shuttered as movie studios have delayed their anticipated summer releases and the public is wary of returning to confined indoor spaces.

Coyote Drive-In has been screening a mix of old films, films released before the pandemic began — like “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “The Invisible Man” — and the highest-grossing movie in the country lacking in name recognition, “The Wretched.”

Chris Fortune, the director of operations at the drive-in, said he’s hopeful Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “Tenet” slated for a July 17 release will usher in more wide releases. But even with older movies, Fortune said, he has seen a huge demand for the communal viewing experience that for many has been missing.

“We’ve only been open for about three weeks,” he said on May 27. “In those three weeks we’ve sold out every night.”

A RETRO EXPERIENCE, WITH NEW MEASURES

The theater used to screen double features on its four screens every night, Fortune said, but now it’s one movie per screen each night. They have been at about half-capacity, he said, with the largest screen — screen 1 — having less than 600 parking spots available compared to the typical 1,250. The pavilion was closed initially but is now open at limited capacity.

The parking signs and the stakes that hold them up represent a $10,000 investment the company made during the shutdown, Fortune said.

“That’s what kept us employed,” he said. “It took us about a week and a half of solid work to mark all 1,200 parking spots.”

They wanted to make it so people can never leave their car if they don’t want to, with both tickets and concessions available to order online. Using the Coyote Drive-In app, people can order food to be delivered directly to their vehicle, which staff can easily find with the new spot numbers. Employees are wearing masks, and the drive-in is encouraging customers to do the same.

There are also hand sanitizing stations near the canteen area with the food and the bar. And staff are being told to sanitize the restrooms every 15 minutes.

Aaron Ruiz and his wife, Arezou Foyoozat, have been spending a lot of time indoors with their 3-year-old daughter, Emma Ruiz, mainly only leaving to go shopping. So they decided it would make for a fun and safe family night to go to a drive-in movie for the first time.

Their daughter would be too young to understand the film, but it carries importance in their family. Foyoozat learned English reading the Harry Potter books. She and her husband named Emma after Emma Watson, specifically because of her role as Hermione Granger.

They felt underprepared when they got to the drive-in, with only a blanket and a few pillows in the back of their SUV, with the trunk open. But they squeezed in tight, with Emma in the middle and her parents surrounding her. They ordered popcorn, nachos and a hot dog to their car.

Emma let out a tiny scream as the Warner Brothers logo faded in and the orchestral theme music began to play.

“With the whole thing going on, and the crisis in the world, in order to do something you have to be out in the open and separated,” Ruiz said.

“It’s also kind of private,” Foyoozat said. “At the same time, you’re watching it with others.”


Location Mentioned: Coyote Drive-In