OCALA, Fla. – Since coronavirus-related closures began, movie theaters across the country have essentially shut down but not all of them.
The “open” sign is still lit at Ocala Drive-In, as a line of cars lead up to the ticket window when News 6 visited Wednesday evening.
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"When they come through the gate, it’s like going through a time warp," owner John Watzke said.
Watzke said the theater has taken precautions when it comes to social distancing, including limiting capacity to about half its usual amount of movie goers and offering delivery directly to cars for food from the concession stand.
“We roped off every other parking space so we have 10-12 feet of social distance between each vehicle,” he said. “Doing everything different than how we used to do.”
As major movie publications, including Vice.com, have also reported, Watzke said the Ocala Drive-In has been one of the only theater in the U.S. to show newly released first-run movies. News 6 also found the Starlight Drive-In Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia has also been showing new movies.
The theater has already been utilized by the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership as well as Church at the Springs.
“This is rare,” student-in-teaching pastor Bryan Roe said. “One of our pastors came up with this crazy idea, ‘What if we call the local drive in?’”
“For the last three weeks, I am the only one showing new releases,” Watzke said. “The old cliche ‘The shows goes on’ is not a cliche it’s a way of life. I’ve got people driving three hours to come here. We end up turning cars away.”
Watzke has owned the theater for nine years, and said he has only closed it for two days during that span when he lost power after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“If they do a mandatory lock down on everything, that’s the only way I would close,” he said.
When theaters first began shutting down due to the coronavirus outbreak, that’s when Watzke started reaching out to different distributors.
"It’s a matter of doing research and being in the industry long enough to know the smaller independent film companies to see what they have available," he said. "I was shocked nobody else got in touch with these independent film companies and booked a movie."
Right now, the Drive-In is showing independent films such as Swallow and Resistance, as well as the classic E.T. and newly released "Trolls: World Tour."
“I really think this virus could be the rebirth of all the drive ins,” Watzke said. "People really need some stability in their life. Mental stability is as important as physical stability.”