Mission Marquee Plaza
While the old drive-in theater (pictured here), reopened in 2014 and renamed the Mission Marquee Plaza, has gone dark due to COVID-19 restrictions, the New Mission Outdoor Theater has booked feature films through January at its Brooks location. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As San Antonians seek relief from pandemic lockdowns and quarantine-like isolation, several entertainment companies have revived an old favorite, the drive-in movie.

Two days after Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency in March, movie theater operator EVO Entertainment changed its focus to drive-in movies.

“We knew that the environment was getting a little bad, and we had anticipated having to shut down” EVO’s indoor entertainment centers, CEO Mitch Roberts said. The Austin-based company’s facilities that combine cinemas, bowling lanes, arcades, live music venues, and full-service restaurants all went dark, but within days the parking lot of the eight-venue company’s Schertz location was alight.

EVO programmed nine nights in a row of free movies, with 140 available parking spots filled each night.

“We wanted to stay relevant and keep doing what we do, and we didn’t want our communities to go for months without having any kind of entertainment,” Roberts said.

Moviegoers were required to observe now-standard pandemic safety protocols by staying in their cars and wearing face coverings when receiving concessions they’d ordered online, but uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19 forced another temporary shutdown as cases spiked in late June.

The concept returned as the EVO Drive-In, with a Summer Drive-In Film Fest spread out over five weekends. The final weekend Aug. 28-29 featured the 1980s films Valley Girl  and April Fool’s Day with an in-person appearance by actress Deborah Foreman, who starred in both movies. Roberts hasn’t ruled out continuing the concept even though his theaters have reopened to show first-run movies, such as director Christopher Nolan’s theater-only release Tenet.

“We certainly might revisit it,” he said. “As a pop-up event somewhere, I think it’s a great experience that we can make part of our our special programming.”

A safe escape

In the meantime, San Antonians have a growing number of options for drive-in movies, as companies adapt to a pandemic-altered reality and see opportunity in entertainment that is naturally socially distanced.

Savvy San Antonians snapped up all available free tickets for the special Walmart Drive-In, a nationwide tour of family-friendly, pop-up movies in the store’s parking lots.

All nights of the Sept. 22-30 local Walmart stops at the store’s three supercenter locations are sold out, but London-based Rooftop Cinema Club and San Antonio entertainment provider Electric Fiesta will keep the new tradition alive on the South and Southwest sides.

Stationed just outside the entrance of the Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park, the Rooftop Cinema Club’s new The Drive-In at Fiesta Texas is running double features each night on its large screens for what it calls “a contact-free cinema experience.”

Stationed just outside the entrance of the Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park, the Rooftop Cinema Club’s new The Drive-In at Fiesta Texas is running double features each night on its large screens for what it calls “a contact-free cinema experience.” Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Rooftop Cinema Club owner Gerry Cottle called drive-ins a “safe escape in uncertain times” in an August interview with the Dallas Observer about the company’s new Dallas location, one of four Texas locations opened since the pandemic caused widespread shutdowns of indoor movie theaters in March.

Rooftop first came to Texas in early May starting in Houston, then opened a Spring location May 26, followed by The Drive-In at Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, which opened June 18.

With first-run features a scarcity, upcoming features include classics The Goonies, Pulp Fiction, and Jurassic Park alongside newer films Bohemian Rhapsody, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and Joker. Tickets range from $24 to $32 per vehicle, with special $20 “Late Night Date Night” tickets for couples.

Every day brings new developments and decisions by government and public health leaders to control the local coronavirus outbreak. We strive to be a trustworthy news source for all in the community–especially during this tumultuous time.

You rely on us for credible reporting, and we rely on readers like you to support our nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on you?

Our reporters are risking a lot to be on the streets chronicling this unprecedented crisis and its impact on our health care systems, local economy, and daily lives. We've been asking our readers to show support for this important public service by making a monthly donation or a one-time gift in whatever amount you can afford.

These donations are helping offset the loss of advertising revenue we normally rely on from local businesses. Can we count on you?

On a mission

Electric Fiesta co-founder Fred Reyes remembers going with his family to the old Mission Drive-In Theatre.

“I was very small,” he said, recalling that “it was more than just a movie theater, it was an event.”

Reyes, whose Electric Fiesta was started in June to provide Fiesta-style entertainment for younger generations, said his motivation for creating the New Mission Outdoor Theater at Brooks was for millennials to have that same experience.

The new drive-in will open Sept. 4 with a full slate of features on back-to-back screens. The idea, Reyes said, is to “not only provide the entertainment, but bring back that experience for people that had never encountered anything like that. I thought it was just a win for everybody.”

While the old drive-in theater, reopened in 2014 and renamed the Mission Marquee Plaza, has gone dark due to COVID-19 restrictions, the New Mission Outdoor Theater has booked feature films through January at its Brooks location, Reyes said.

A large double screen and double features allow four movies to run each night, starting with Fantasy Island, Nacho Libre, Rocketman, and Bad Boys for Life running Sept. 4, followed on Sept. 5 with American Me, Anchorman, Blood In Blood Out with San Antonio native Jesse Borrego, and Talladega Nights.

Other features are a mix of newer second-run movies and older classics, from the original Ghostbusters and La Bamba to 2019 films John Wick 3: Parabellum and Hustlers. Tickets range from $27 per vehicle to a $42 premium package that includes concessions.

The Southside location is important to Reyes. “It traditionally gets overlooked,” he said. “My family’s from that side of town,” he said, and “these people need the same thing that people on the North Side and the West Side need.”

Reyes said he learned a lot from the recent Electric Fiesta EDM Drive-In event at the Freeman Coliseum. People were “just so grateful to have something to do,” he said. One person told him, “I felt like myself again for a few minutes,” he said. While the pandemic looks like it will be sticking around for a while, he said, “people need to have something to do and, and something to look forward to.”

All in the family

The original Mission Drive-In operated from 1948 to 2000 and revived for a short time when Cinemark Theatres purchased it, showing movies from 2001 to 2003.

Cinemark was started by Leroy Roberts, grandfather of EVO’s Mitch Roberts. The elder Roberts is still chairman of the company, the CEO said, and “actually, on our EVO Drive-In website, the background is a photo of my grandfather and his first drive-in,” the Village Drive-In in Ennis, near Dallas, on its opening night in November 1959. The featured film was Ben-Hur.

“So there’s a lot of history there and respect for our industry and how far it’s come,” Roberts said.

The Village Drive-In closed in the 1970s, was purchased and renamed the Foxfire Drive-In, which eventually closed for good in 1984. Ennis still has a drive-in, though, the Galaxy, now open seven nights per week, attesting to the enduring popularity of the business model.

Plans for a new EVO Entertainment Center on Escala Parkway in San Antonio have been delayed by the pandemic, Roberts said, but the scheduled opening is now set for winter 2021.

Asked if the pop-up drive-in concept would work for the grand opening, Roberts cited the prevailing uncertainty and said, “I don’t know, we’ll have to see. It depends on what the environment looks like. But if there’s space next to it, we may come up with something fun.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...