When Popcorn Frights had to postpone its summer horror-film festival due to the pandemic, the organizers were determined to find another way to bring movie magic to their community.
"This is something that we need right now for our souls," says Igor Shteyrenberg, who cofounded the festival in 2015 with Marc Ferman. "Film fills an absence for us. It truly has the power to heal us and make us better and help us see things we wouldn't see otherwise."
Popcorn Frights, which has become the largest genre film festival in the southeastern U.S., is known for spotlighting the work of South Florida filmmakers and discovering new talent. It's curated "by horror lovers for horror lovers," Shteyrenberg says, and it's a passion project for its team, which doesn't make money from putting it on. With the main festival rescheduled for October, they decided to launch a drive-in movie theater, in partnership with Twilight Features and MASS District in Fort Lauderdale.
"We've all been social distancing for so long, it's been so many months, we're all going crazy," Shteyrenberg says. "This is a way to get people outside in a very safe way and have them experience the outdoors and be able to have some diversion, but also a sense of being connected. Film is supposed to be experienced in a social space."
Popcorn Frights Drive-In Horrorshow will kick off May 30 at MASS District with a double bill. Shteyrenberg and Ferman look to move the pop-up around to different South Florida locales as the summer progresses.
Once upon a time, drive-ins were a common sight, great for dates and family-friendly outings.
Now they seem tailor-made for our current era of social distancing, offering outdoor locations and natural separation.
Though Miami is slowly reopening, with restaurants, retail stores, and salons beginning to operate at partial capacity, movie theaters are among the businesses that remain shuttered. And even when they do reopen, it's unclear when people will feel safe gathering indoors in large groups again. It's only natural that makeshift drive-in theaters are popping up across Miami and Fort Lauderdale to provide a few hours of diversion to a stir-crazy populace.
With both of its theaters, Savor Cinema and Cinema Paradiso, shuttered, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (FLIFF) launched a drive-in experience this past weekend at the MASS District parking lot with a sold-out screening of Pulp Fiction. At Dezerland Park in North Miami, a new drive-in offers different movies every week, beginning last weekend with family-friendly flicks Sonic the Hedgehog and Jurassic Park. Miami's Nite Owl Theater has announced plans for a drive-in, and last Sunday, the City of Miami Beach debuted its residents-only drive-in at a parking lot on Collins Avenue and 46th Street.
For the Swap Shop, which operates drive-ins in Fort Lauderdale, Lake Worth, and Tampa, parking-lot screenings are nothing new. The Fort Lauderdale location has been in operation since 1963 and until recently offered the only consistent drive-in experience in the area. Ashley Henn, the granddaughter of Swap Shop founder Preston Henn, says the drive-in has seen an increase in business since social-distancing rules went into effect.
"During the week, parents are bringing their kids, trying to find something to do," Henn says. "It's a great place for the community to come together. I don't think that'll ever go away. People have got to get out at some point, get some fresh air."
The nostalgia factor can also play a role, providing a different take on the moviegoing experience that might feel like a novelty to many contemporary viewers. But for Popcorn Frights, it's also important to bring it into the 21st century.
"We're not looking back and exploiting nostalgia. We're looking at the present and celebrating these indie filmmakers whose movies have had their entire film runs upended because of the COVID-19 pandemic," Shteyrenberg says. "We're trying to create opportunities for these films to be experienced on the largest screens we can find, as loud as possible, outdoors, under the stars, and try to salvage the moviegoing experience for our community."
According to Shteyrenberg, Popcorn Frights will include extras like preshows of short films as well as live performances to accompany the main event.
Drive-in operators also want visitors to feel as safe as possible venturing out to their events, and are taking pains to implement social-distancing measures when offering amenities.
At FLIFF's drive-in debut, Local Loco Food Truck served burgers, chicken wings, and tacos, and patrons could purchase popcorn and sodas in advance. Dezerland provides audiences with an app to order food that's delivered to their cars. Swap Shop's concession stands are closed, encouraging people to bring snacks, and restrooms are staffed by attendants to ensure sanitation. Popcorn Frights will have food trucks and staffed porta-potties onsite.
"We're trying to make people feel safe when they go outside, and take the necessary precautions," Shteyrenberg says, "but also remind them about the joy and love that they have when they go out and watch a movie."
Most of all, Shteyrenberg says, the events are about giving people a little bit of hope and sharing the social aspect of film that gets lost when you're at home streaming Netflix.
"We need to be sitting next to each other," he says. "I want to hear the scream from the patrons sitting right next to me out of fear at a scene. That's fun — it's like being on a rollercoaster ride. And that's what's missing right now. We're trying to bring that back."
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Dezerland Park Miami. 14401 NE 19th Ave., North Miami; 786-590-5000; carflixcinema.com. Tickets cost $30 per car.
FLIFF Drive-In Cinemas. MASS District Parking Lot, 895 NE Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-3456; fliff.com. Tickets cost $20 per car.
The Swap Shop Drive-In. 3291 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-791-7927; floridaswapshop.com. Tickets cost $7 for adults, $2 for ages 5 to 11, free for ages 1 to 4.