A week later, he was stricken by the same fate of most entertainment businesses: He was forced dark by the state’s coronavirus stay-at-home order.
Now, with some states easing restrictions on businesses, Kopp lit up his screens this weekend with a pair of animated movies. His effort symbolizes the country’s fraught return to public entertainment, reflecting both the harsh economic conditions and the fragile hope that seeks to flower within them.
Kopp has no new movies to show, has to contend with razor-thin margins and must enforce social distancing. But thanks to his venue’s natural separations, he also has something few in America do: an entertainment destination that’s open and of potential interest to customers.
“It’s going to be a little subdued, and it’s definitely going to be stressful,” Kopp said. “But we can ride.”
About 300 drive-in theaters still exist in the United States. Many struggle to turn a profit as they offer up doses of nostalgia, a communal experience and low-cost entertainment in the face of slicker and better-funded indoor competitors.
But as it has with so many others, the coronavirus has turned this world on its head. Indoor theaters rely on packing crowds into rooms, but drive-ins leave consumers isolated in their automotive bubbles, positioning theaters to thrive. Kopp says he already sold out shows on each of his two screens on Friday and Saturday evenings.
(Indoor theaters are being granted permission to open in some states, but how many will rush to do so, and whether significant numbers of people will show up, remain major questions.)
As he navigates this new universe, Kopp represents what’s possible — or at least that something is possible — in a country still regularly recording more than 20,000 new cases of the novel coronavirus each day.
With apparent permission from the governor, the 54-year-old Family and at least three of Virginia’s five other drive-ins will also reopen this week. Kopp said the theaters have been in touch with Gov. Ralph Northam’s office to officially obtain its blessing. A spokeswoman for Northam, Alena Yarmosky, did not reply to a request for comment.
Many other drive-ins across the country will follow suit. John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-in Theatres Association of America, said he expects some 150 theaters to reopen in the next three weeks as orders for nonessential business are lifted. Others will take a little longer, as they rehire staff and digitize ticket systems. (Only a fraction of drive-ins — fewer than 15 — have actually stayed open through the states’ stay-at-home orders.)
The group has support in its bid from a wide swath of elected officials. Even New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who has said he intends to open the hard-hit state’s nonessential businesses very slowly later in May, said he’d like to fast-track drive-ins. "Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theater,” he said at a briefing recently. “You’re in the car with the same people.” New York boasts some 30 drive-ins, among the most in the country, many of them upstate.
But just because the theaters are open doesn’t mean they can succeed. Product is one issue. Studios, which prefer simultaneous national rollouts, have postponed all major releases until at least mid-July. Kopp will show “Onward” and “Trolls World Tour.” The former is a Pixar release about two elf brothers that had its run cut short when the virus hit in mid-March; the latter, initially scheduled to come to theaters two weeks ago, was turned into a digital rental by Universal.
Kopp also said he is considering “repertory” product — older movies such as “Grease” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that people still enjoy watching in groups. To keep operating costs down, he is running single features instead of the usual double. He will keep only about half of his staff of 15 on hand on a given night.
The theater, situated just outside the small town of Stephens City, also must impose social distancing. Kopp will cut capacity by 50 percent — instead of allowing two cars between sound poles he will allow only one. All ticketing will be done online; no transactions will be on site.
And while the snack bar will be open, it will conduct ordering online and hand over food in a curbside manner.
“It won’t feel like a drive-in is meant to — which is a giant movie tailgate party — but people will still lie in the backs of trucks and families will be there and the dog will be there and it will feel like summer,” Kopp said.
The entrepreneur’s backstory is a common one among drive-in owners, who tend to enter the business more for love than money.
A retired logistics manager for the Library of Congress’s archive in Landover, Md., Kopp harbored affection for drive-ins since his childhood in early-1960s Pittsburgh. When he moved to Virginia as a teenager, he fell in love with drive-ins there, particularly the Super 29 on Route 29 between Centreville and Fairfax.
Kopp scraped together enough money to buy a theater in Henderson, N.C., with his late wife in 2006, and then the Family Drive-in from its original owner in 2010; he continues to rent the land from the owner. He sold the North Carolina theater and now runs Family with Rita, his girlfriend who also serves as its general manager.
Like many drive-in owners, Kopp remains physically involved, often unloading trucks and climbing four or five stories up to fix panels on the screen.
Kopp says many drive-ins can collect $10,000 in movie and food receipts on a good night, but that comes with notable costs; revenue-shares with studios, for example, run at 50-60 percent of ticket sales. Kopp takes no salary; he lives off his Library of Congress pension. Any theater profits, he says, go back into the business.
“The payment is seeing everyone out there on a beautiful night,” he said.
He says he runs the theater on such tight margins he doesn’t have much room for error. He is lucky, he acknowledged, that his landlord has forgiven him rent during the closure. And unlike many other owners, he no longer has projector payments to make. Projectors cost tens of thousands of dollars and are often bought with a long-term loan.
Still, Kopp has deferred payments for his Ford F-150 until late June so he can stay liquid enough to pour money into the business.
His personal circumstance is not much more secure. Kopp, 66, has respiratory problems while Rita, a cancer survivor, has a heart condition, adding to their worries about reopening the theater during the time of covid-19.
At one point in the 20th century, there were 5,000 drive-in theaters in the United States. As recently as the 1990s there were more than 900 drive-in screens, before the number dwindled to the current 500 screens, at the 300 locations. (The United States has 40,000 movie screens overall.) As multiplexes have added amenities, drive-ins, with their high maintenance and real-estate costs, have struggled to keep up.
As a result, drive-ins in the 21st century have flourished in more working-class and rural areas, where land is cheaper and the venue appeals to families seeking to pile in the car for a night of inexpensive entertainment.
The business also is limited by Mother Nature. Screenings can plausibly happen only after dark, but starting a movie too late isn’t appealing for families. And a rainy season can kill a business.
Everyone who’s worth their Optoma EH500 DLP remembers the rain-soaked summer of 2018, when ticket sales were so hard to come by that as many as 20 theaters shut their gates after it was over. Last year saw an improvement — megahits such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King” kept the cars pouring in while the rain, fortunately, did not.
That seasonality makes a quick opening now critical. “We’re not a business that can make up our revenue in November and December,” said Vincent, the association president.
Drive-ins also must contend with the possibility of competition from indoor theaters. Chris Escobar, owner of the independent Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, is putting the final touches on plans to host a pop-up drive-in starting in early May in his theater’s parking lot. Escobar will use 49 of the 75 parking spaces in the lot, offer concessions only through an online app and encourage drive-in viewers to order food from nearby restaurants.
Experts say they see the drive-in reopenings during the pandemic as an important option, if not a permanent shift.
“This is a great alternative form of distribution, another way for us to consume entertainment instead of staying home and watching Netflix all the time,” said Thomas Doherty, a professor at Brandeis University who studies film distribution and exhibition. “But I think this is an intermediate phase before we can get back to what we were doing before.”
Kopp says that trajectory sits well with him. “If we can bring people some safe fun before they can get back to indoor theaters, I’m okay with that."
He says the real joy will come later this week.
“I can’t wait to see those first cars start coming in. Of course I’ll be behind the scenes because of my health," he said. “But I just can’t wait to see it.”
Jena McGregor contributed reporting to this story from Atlanta.