If all goes according to plan, on Friday we may see Jackie Gleason chasing Burt Reynolds on the side of the Marketplace Cinemas building, followed Saturday by Kermit the Frog singing about the Rainbow Connection. The next weekend, a Garth Brooks concert will be streamed there.
Then by the end of July, we should get new movies on the big screen for the first time in months. June 19 is the tentative date for the grand opening of the Marketplace Drive-In Cinema, with theater owner Daniel Kleeberg picking a personal favorite — the raucous 1977 action comedy “Smokey and the Bandit” — for the opening night film.
The next night, the drive-in will show 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” a favorite of Kleeberg’s son, Zack Fox, the manager and head projectionist at the theater.
“We’re doing things that make us happy and bring back memories,” Kleeberg said. “A lot of movies hold up.... we all have our favorites. That’s what we’re doing, trying to play the stuff that gets us excited.”
From there, they are planning a slew of recent and classic movies — from “Black Panther” (July 10) to “Zootopia” (June 26), and including a quartet of Steven Spielberg blockbusters, the 1969 John Wayne Western “True Grit,” the “The Empire Strikes Back,” and many more.
Tickets for most shows will be $20 a carload, and patrons will reserve spaces in advance, with more than 160 spaces available in the parking lots between the Cinemas building and Marketplace Mall itself. Information and links for ordering tickets and reserving spaces will be posted on the Marketplace Cinemas Winston-Salem Facebook page. Tickets for “Smokey” and “The Muppet Movie” will be made available early this week.
June 27, Marketplace is participating in a special streaming drive-in concert event with Garth Brooks, in which tickets will be $100 for each carload of up to six people. Those tickets will be sold at Ticketmaster starting this Friday. Brooks’ concert will be exclusive to drive-in theaters across the country, with about 300 theaters participating.
When new movies begin coming back out for theaters later this summer, Marketplace plans to include them in the rotation as well, including Christopher Nolan’s next thriller, “Tenet” (originally scheduled for July 17 but recently pushed back to the 31st), Disney’s live action “Mulan” remake, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”
For the past few weeks, Kleeberg and Fox have been working with the owners of Marketplace Mall on an ambitious plan to revitalize the Marketplace Cinemas — which, like other indoor movie theaters, shut down several months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the process, the theater owners want to bring the area its first drive-in theater since the Bel-Air in Walkertown closed in 2000. In the process, they also hope to increase interest in Marketplace Mall itself, which has invested more than $50,000 in the revamp.
“It’s going to be cool,” Kleeberg said. “It’s a commitment that we have made.”
The parking lot beside the Marketplace Cinemas building off Peters Creek Parkway is being converted into the drive-in, which is allowed under current social distancing guidelines. The side of the building has been patched and painted with a white surface that will allow the image to be screened from a mobile mini unit in the parking lot, with a projector that was set up last week for initial tests of the sight lines to determine the ideal angles for parking. The Cinemas also bought a new transmitter that will project the film audio to FM radios in the cars.
“Every individual (space) we’re going to sight-line with the image on the screen,” Kleeberg said, “We’re going to stagger it, so you’ll have one row like a regular drive-in, but the row behind it will be staggered, off-set, like you would a theater seating to get the best view. ... Big trucks will go in the very back.”
Movies will start after dark, around 8:45 p.m., and will screen rain or shine. They had looked into the idea of double features but are currently planning one movie a night, Fox said.
Food and drinks will be available before the movie each night in the theater lobby, from food trucks in the parking lot, vendors set up on the sidewalk in front of the lobby and several restaurants in the Marketplace Mall itself, including hot dogs, hamburgers, Jamaican food and more.
Several light poles in the parking lot that would obstruct the view are coming down, with plans to leave enough light that people can get out of their cars to go to the bathrooms — and, when social distancing guidelines ease, perhaps also put their lawn chairs out around their cars — while leaving things dark enough to ensure a clear image on the movie screen.
Drive-in theaters have had a revival in recent months, with theaters in Eden, Raleigh and elsewhere enjoying brisk business for families eager for a night out of the house.
Indoor theaters have been shut down for several months, and many movies that would have played theatrically — including “Trolls: World Tour” and “Artemis Fowl” — have been released for home viewing instead. Last week, AMC Theaters, the world’s largest theater operator, said it expects most of its cinemas to reopen by mid-July.
But Kleeberg, who has been in the theater business for 30 years, said that even when indoor theaters are allowed to reopen, he’s not sure how long it will be before audiences will feel comfortable in an enclosed theater — or how long it will take for movie distribution to get back to normal. “I think it’s going to be a while before people start going back to movies like they used to.”
The drive-in format, he said, gives the Marketplace a chance to “start showing movies again where people will come out.”
“I never did a drive-in because it is a lot of work,” Kleeberg said. “I never messed with the drive-in. We’ve done it now, and it’s a lot of hard work.” He said he feels the investment of time and money will be worthwhile in the end. “Like everything else, it’s a gamble. And we’ll see what happens. I think it’ll be fun.”
Fox added, “With social distancing, and baseball and everything being canceled and all the Fourth of July events, we just want to provide some movie entertainment that’s also safe, that people feel safe with.”