Michael B. Jordan couldn't accept a summer without movies.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down movie theaters across the U.S., the actor-producer and his production company, Outlier Society, acted fast to give a largely forgotten segment of the film business a shot in the arm: drive-in movie theaters. The star of films such as Black Panther, Creed, and Fruitvale Station, Jordan pitched Amazon Studios on hosting a series of film screenings at drive-in theaters across the country. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Jordan selected films directed by minority filmmakers ranging from Spike Lee to Jordan Peele and Jon M. Chu. The series would also offer audience members free snacks from minority-owned businesses.
The pitch worked. On July 1, Amazon Studios and Outlier Society launched "A Night at the Drive-In" with the first of 200 film screenings being held at 20 drive-in theaters across the U.S. through the end of August. Renting the theaters delivers guaranteed revenue to the theater owners regardless of attendance, though attendance for the screening series at the Ocala Drive-In outside Orlando has so far been strong, reaching 70 percent on July 15, according to owner John Watzke.
"It's a win-win situation," Watzke says. "When entertainment is scarce and for some people cash flow is scarce, this is a great thing." A third-generation projectionist who always wanted to own his own theater, Watzke's family has worked in the movie exhibition business for 107 years. "My father and grandfather were projectionists, my brother and I were projectionists, and our sons were projectionists," Watzke says. Founded in 1948, the Ocala Drive-In changed hands just three times before closing in 2002. Watzke bought the business in 2011 and runs it today with 15 employees. In early April, when the coronavirus left just 14 movie theaters open for business in the U.S., the Ocala was the only theater in the country showing first-run films.
"A Night at the Drive-In" has also had a meaningful impact on the small businesses whose snacks are included in giveaway boxes at the theaters. For Jersey City, New Jersey-based cookie company Partake Foods, backed by Jay-Z's Marcy Venture Partners, the order for "A Night at the Drive-In" was the largest single order the company has ever fulfilled since its founding in 2016.
"It was about 70 percent of what we did in revenue the second year after our launch," says founder Denise Woodard. "It almost felt like a hoax initially, because they needed so much product." Partake makes allergy-friendly cookies that are vegan-certified, gluten-free, and nut-free. Woodard added that the initiative has also generated significant social media exposure for her company. "We're getting so many tags on social media with people saying they're at the movies, they're enjoying the snacks, and they love the cause in terms of supporting Black- and Brown-founded companies." The free snacks given to audience members also included water from Pathwater, which sells purified water in refillable aluminum water bottles.
For Brooklyn-based Pipsnacks, "A Night at the Drive-In" is one of the rare marketing opportunities that didn't ask for free product, according to co-founder Jen Martin. Backed by Shark Tank's Barbara Corcoran, the company makes a miniature popcorn called Pipcorn that doesn't get stuck in your teeth. The screening series ordered more than 100,000 bags from the company as part of the free concessions for guests. "Every bag was paid for, including shipping," says Martin. "In eight-and-a-half years, we've rarely been paid for anything that we do marketing-wise." The company has expanded its product line in recent years by adding crackers, corn chips, and cheese balls.
Beyond the revenue for minority business owners, "A Night at the Drive-In" is also amplifying the work of minority artists who Jordan says may feel underappreciated.
"One of the issues is feeling like our voices are not being heard, that we're saying Black Lives Matter, we're pushing this agenda, but we're not feeling like anybody is listening," Jordan said in a video interview Amazon conducted for the campaign. "We're able to tell these diverse stories from other creatives who might have felt the same way and through their work and their art are able to express themselves."
Below is a list of the drive-in theaters showing free movies on August 12 and August 26.
Vineland Drive-In -- Los Angeles
Overlook Drive-In -- Poughkeepsie, New York
Solano Twin Drive-In -- San Francisco
Sacramento 6 Drive-In -- Sacramento
Las Vegas Drive-In -- Las Vegas
Shankweiler's Drive-In -- Philadelphia
Galaxy Drive-In -- Dallas-Fort Worth
Showboat Drive-In -- Houston
Ford Wyoming Drive-In -- Detroit
Springmill Drive-In -- Cleveland
South Drive-In Twin -- Columbus, Ohio
Jesup Drive-In Twin -- Savannah, Georgia
Bengies Drive-In -- Baltimore
Ocala Drive-In -- Orlando
Parkway Drive-In -- Knoxville, Tennessee
Midway Twin Drive-In -- Cleveland
Glendale Drive-In -- Phoenix
Transit Drive-In -- Buffalo, New York
Badin Drive-In -- Charlotte, North Carolina
Monetta Drive-In -- Augusta, Georgia-Aiken, South Carolina