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When It Comes To New Release Showings, A Drive-In Theater Stands Alone

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On a normal Saturday, a lot of us might be thinking about heading to the movies right about now. But there's nothing normal about right about now. And with most movie theaters closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, there's nowhere to go to see a new release on the big screen - unless you happen to be in Ocala, Fla.

JOHN WATZKE: Kind of like the last dinosaur standing, you know (laughter)?

MARTIN: That's John Watzke, owner-operator of the Ocala Drive-In in Ocala, Fla. Last week, his theater made headlines as the only one in the country showing a new release film. In fact, his drive-in was responsible for the entire revenue of the week's top-grossing movie, an arthouse horror film called "Swallow." It made a whopping $1,700 at the box office.

WATZKE: Never in the day thought that I would be the top in the box office. But I ended up the only one in the box office, so it's not hard to be the top if you're the only one.

MARTIN: There are other drive-in theaters open around the country, but they are showing classic films, not new ones. To stay open, the Ocala Drive-In has had to change some things to adapt to social distancing. Employees are wearing masks and gloves. And the spaces in the parking lot are bigger now, with 12 feet between vehicles.

WATZKE: Basically, I've lost over half of my parking that I normally would have. But we are filling up. On Fridays and Saturdays, unfortunately, we're having to turn people away.

MARTIN: Watzke says he has received some criticism for staying open during the pandemic. But he says most of the feedback he's getting is from families who appreciate having a nice night out right about now.

WATZKE: People have to have a certain amount of mental stability. They're getting cabin fever. Everybody's going to be getting on everybody's nerves sooner or later. This gives them a break.

MARTIN: He says it reminds him of being on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. He says that experience taught him the value of providing some relief during a crisis.

WATZKE: Anything that brought us five minutes or five hours of normal feeling was appreciated.

MARTIN: And even though drive-ins have been disappearing across the country, Watzke hopes that this pandemic will remind people of what these open-air theaters can offer. Plus, he says, showing movies is in his blood.

WATZKE: Coming from the family that's worked theaters for over a hundred years, the old cliche the show must go on is not a cliche. It's a way of life. So the show must go on.

MARTIN: That was John Watzke, owner-operator of the Ocala Drive-In in Ocala, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.