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Will drive-in theaters give film industry pandemic solace?

CGV’s drive-in theater (CGV)
CGV’s drive-in theater (CGV)
Being unable to walk into theaters freely in the non-face-to-face era has changed moviegoers’ behavior and boosted streaming platforms such as Netflix and Watcha. But for many, the big screen in a cinema is still the ideal choice.

According to movie industry reports on June 26, CGV and Lotte Cinema recently opened drive-in theaters in Incheon and Busan -- the first in South Korea to be operated by large multiplex theater chains with branches throughout the country.

The most obvious advantage of a drive-in theater is being able to enjoy movies with friends and family -- on a big screen with full sound -- without coming into contact with the general public.

The CGV Drive-In Square One theater, which opened June 25 in Yeonsu-gu, Incheon, can accommodate some 100 vehicles. Between July and November last year, CGV temporarily operated a drive-in theater in Gwacheon’s Seoul Land. But the Incheon branch is permanent, it said.

At Seoul Land, 51 percent of the drive-in theater’s spaces were filled on average, a CGV official told a domestic media outlet. Given those numbers, the company decided to open a permanent drive-in.

Another advantage of the drive-in experience is direct access to the outdoors. Next to the Square One drive-in theater there is a stream called Seunggicheon, with a walking trail where visitors can spend time before and after movies.

Delivery services are also provided, with pick-up stands where visitors can order popcorn and other snacks that they can eat in their cars -- unlike today’s indoor movie theaters, which only allow beverages and prohibit solid food. 

A poster for Lotte Cinema’s new drive-in theater in Busan (Lotte Cinema)
A poster for Lotte Cinema’s new drive-in theater in Busan (Lotte Cinema)
Lotte Cinema’s “Drive Osiria” opened June 10 at the Osiria Tourism Complex in Busan’s Gijang-gun.

It is the largest drive-in in Busan, Ulsan, and North and South Gyeongsang provinces, screening movies twice a day both on weekdays and weekends, with room for more than 300 vehicles.

The screen is also one of the largest, measuring 25 by 13 meters. A Lotte Cinema official told media, “We expect the theater to generate synergy with the Osiria Tourism Complex, the Lotte Adventure theme park opening in August, and also the Lotte Premium outlet located nearby.”

In the two weeks since it opened, some 2,500 vehicles have visited the theater. Assuming there were two people in each vehicle, 5,000 customers have watched movies there.

Meanwhile, according to data gathered by the Korean Film Council, movie theater attendance recorded 59.52 million people last year -- a 74 percent drop from 2019, leading to a 73 percent decrease in total revenue.

CGV, Lotte Cinema and Megabox had to close some of their branches because of financial struggles, and later they adapted by increasing ticket costs and screening fewer films.

The industry sees drive-in theaters as both a way out of the COVID-19 struggles and an experiment in new opportunities for theaters to better meet the public’s changing preferences.

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)
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