Retailers Use Empty Parking Lots for Drive-in Theaters

July 16, 2020

Drive-in movie theaters, once popular years ago, are making a comeback as the need for social distancing grows amid the pandemic. Pop-up drive-in theaters are starting to occupy empty parking lots at shopping centers and regional malls. Residents are able to watch a movie or virtual concert, while retail landlords earn money and retailers attract business from those who want to socially distant.

Mall operators, in particular, are turning to their huge parking lots to uncover new business streams. “At the start of COVID, one of the things we talked about when we were shutting our centers [was that] we’re a real estate company and how do we leverage the rest of our real estate, which would include our parking lots,” Michelle Snyder, senior vice president, and chief marketing officer for Brookfield Properties’ retail group, told the National Real Estate Investor.

Soon, Kilburn Live, a division of Kilburn Media, approached Brookfield about leasing parking lot space to open pop-up drive-ins at several centers. “We’re a real estate company, so Kilburn is one of our tenants and they do all the turnkey business,” Snyder says. “They handle the technology, the movies, and the ability to stream via Bluetooth in your car. They really arranged everything.”

So far, these pop-up cinemas have opened at Brookfield centers in Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, and five other locations; 20 locations will be opened by August and 32 soon after, Kilburn says.

Malls “really are trying to do all they can to help their tenants,” Mark Manuel, Kilburn’s CEO, told the National Real Estate Investor. “They’re trying to find ways to drive traffic to help their current tenants and [pop-up drive-ins] are doing a great job of that.”

Moviegoers can shop at the mall early or grab dinner at the food court. If they aren’t comfortable entering the mall, Snyder says they can order food on their phone and have it delivered curbside. Brookfield has also set up outdoor walk-up counters for those who order from the mall’s food court.

“We’re working as much as we can with our tenants to really help them drive their sales and their success,” Snyder notes.

Walmart recently announced a similar venture that would transform 160 of its store parking lots into drive-in movie theaters starting in August. It is partnering with Tribeca Enterprises to have movies in its parking lots run through October. Admission will be free. Moviegoers can pick up picnic items and snacks curbside at Walmart stores.

“Doing drive-ins like it’s 2020 rather than 1960” will be important, Ricardo Rubi, retail marketing specialist, and partner at Simon-Kucher & Partners, a New York-based consulting firm, told the National Real Estate Investor. “Creating an omnichannel experience in the drive-in could be a big driver of success.” He says mall owners and retailers will need to find ways to encourage consumers to not just go to the parking lot but also inside to their stores or at least capture the trip with curbside service for food or products.

Stores are exploring other ways to use their parking lots. Some malls also have been using their vast parking lots for drive-thru farmers markets or expansion of drive-thru food services, such as from Chick-Fil-A, or even allowing their parking lots to become COVID-19 testing sites.

What Goes Into Operating Drive-in Theaters in Retail Parking Lots,” National Real Estate Investor (July 15, 2020)