(HOUSTON) — Drive-in cinemas made a popular return at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. As indoor theaters closed their doors and more people searched for a fun yet safe outing, businesses took the opportunity to convert outdoor spaces into drive-in theaters. A year later, most of these ‘pop-ups’ have shut down but Moonstruck Drive-In remains standing in Houston’s East End.
In their prime, the 1950s, drive-ins provided Americans with a novel and entertaining activity that could be done from their vehicles. While the demand has died down over the years, the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association reports, as of 2019, there are 305 theater locations in the country, and 12 of those are in Texas.
Jim Kopp, the administrative secretary for UDITOA said, “Only 5% to 10% of drive-ins throughout the U.S. are actually benefiting from the coronavirus.” While there is no data currently available for 2020, we can surely add Moonstruck as Texas’ 13th site.
Co-owners Alisha Tashiro and Andrew Thomas are no strangers to the movie industry. Tashiro is the owner of Blue Moon Cinemas which specializes in turn-key outdoor movie and event productions. Thomas is the owner of Showboat Drive-In, an outdoor theater 40 miles northwest of Moonstruck.
Before the pandemic began, Tashiro and Thomas were looking for a permanent downtown location to provide the same theater grade equipment as AMC or Cinemark. The team toured their current property several times to ensure good lighting and sound would function in the space.
“The moon was so bright so that’s kind of how we came up with [the name],” said Tashiro. “It’s probably a little cheesy. We were just struck by the moon, it was just so beautiful there. And I mean, nothing beats the view that we have.”
In Houston’s East End, there’s a growing entrepreneurial community making waves. Dan Joyce, director of public affairs of the East End District, says the area was designated as one of the official state cultural districts. So not only is it used for the preservation of cultural arts but also for economic development through the arts.
“This is an example of a developer… [who] is working on a site or the site is in transition and [is] using and activating that site while the development is either on pause or taking shape. This was a great example because[Moonstruck] was able to create an activation that was family friendly and COVID safe during the pandemic,” Joyce said.
Moonstruck sits on the dividing line between Houston’s fifth and second ward, in historically Black and Hispanic neighborhoods respectively. Thomas has noticed they have a large Hispanic audience. When speaking to the predominantly first-generation immigrants about the experience, Thomas says many of them didn’t know something like a drive-in existed. He enjoys, “Getting to introduce the whole concept to a demographic that never knew.”
With a combined 15 years of experience, Tashiro and Thomas were able to get things up and running quickly. Officially opened in August 2020, they used Blue Moon inflatable screens while building two permanent ones which allows for simultaneous showings. The team works with a film buyer who helps them book Hollywood releases.
The projectors currently at Moonstruck use big light bulbs and require a lot of light output which in turn requires a creative cooling system, especially given Houston’s heat. As Thomas explains, it was a struggle to make it work in an environment that it’s not designed for. But as innovative as they had to be for an effective cooling system, innovation in technology will soon help them out in that technical aspect.
“Sometime probably in the early summer, we’re actually going to convert all of our projection to laser,” Thomas said. He explains it doesn’t require nearly as much cooling as the big, bright bulbs do. Another benefit from laser projection, it’s way brighter. “It’s roughly two to two and a half times brighter,” which Thomas says will give them the ability to start the movies earlier.
On May 3, they finished installing a third permanent screen so they now have a capacity for 300 cars. People are free to set up how they want while still respecting and following health guidelines.
“They can enjoy that family atmosphere without feeling so constrained in a movie theater, not just in COVID but just in the fact that they can’t speak to each other, you know, comment on the movie or make a little bit of noise while they’re eating their popcorn, just in a more comfortable atmosphere,” said Tashiro.
Movie theaters rely on concession sales to keep operations running as they represent 40% of profits. So Moonstruck makes fresh popcorn for every showing, along with selling the classic movie theater candy boxes, bottled soda, beer, and wine.
They also hire local food vendors to offer more filling options to customers which in turn provides a boost for small-business owners who continue to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Coming up on their fourth year operating, Jessica Hernandez, co-owner of Las Brasas Tacos & Grill catering, recognizes the obstacles from the last year with cancellations of events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing from a friend about a new drive-in theater in town, Hernandez reached out to Moonstruck and is now selling food almost every other weekend. The outcome has been beneficial with an approximate 30% to 40% increase in growth since working with Moonstruck.
“We’ve been to places and they’re like ‘You’re the people that are at the drive-in, correct?’ and it feels great to know that they recognize us from locations that we’ve been before,” Hernandez said.
Aside from being a food vendor at the showings, Las Brasas participates in pop-up markets in different areas of Houston. Hernandez saw the potential of the open space available at Moonstruck and took the initiative to organize a “La Pulgita” pop-up market to support small businesses.
In March of this year, they had 42 vendors participate in the first event. A month later at the next “pulgita,” it grew to 62 vendors; all ranging from baked goods to arts and jewelry. They also had photo booths and moonwalks for entertainment which at the same time helped those promoting their local party businesses.
“[Moonstruck] were very supportive…it was just something that we randomly thought about and we explained to them our idea and they were up for it,” Hernandez said, “Right now we’re already planning our next event in June.”
A large part of Moonstruck’s work includes coordinating private events with schools and non-profit organizations to help them raise money for their missions. Co-owner Tashiro says they hold around two private events a week for these groups. Some schools have done silent auctions with a movie afterwards; others have done pre-recorded performances by the students.
Besides Hollywood blockbusters, Moonstruck has hosted concerts, comedians, and film festivals.
Looking to go beyond a virtual platform while, “Keep[ing] things safe and responsible but with a live in-person component”, Laurence Unger, executive director of the Houston Cinema Arts Society, said. Unger turned to Moonstruck to host two screenings for their 12th annual festival in November of 2020.
Two months later, the Houston Cinema Arts Society partnered with Sundance Film Festival to host six Sundance Satellite screenings at two Houston locations, one of course being Moonstruck. Typically held in Park City, Utah, this year the gathering took place online and across the country due to the ongoing pandemic.
“Sundance has a very high level of requirement for technical expertise. Like you have to have this DCP capacity, which basically eliminated every other drive-in venue because they’re just not that sophisticated. But Andrew [co-owner of Moonstruck] was so good that our operational conversation with Sundance took like 60 seconds,” Unger chuckled.
A DCP or Digital Cinema Package is the format theaters use to project movies. Over 90% of the theatres in the world now screen from DCPs. Unger adds, this equipment is critical to traditionally first-run films which is why other drive-ins only play reruns like “Grease” because they don’t have that capacity; ”it’s expensive, it’s difficult, [and] it’s complicated.”At each of the Sundance Satellites there’s what’s called the beyond-film programming, which allowed Houston Cinema Arts Society to have an hour of Houston based curatorial programming before the festival began. They screened two films from their short film competition plus live DJ sets allowing for exposure of Houston based artists.
“Having a new venue come up where you could feel safe and share the cinematic experience with other people who are passionate about it was huge. I mean, I think it really kept people’s spirits up,” Unger said. “Then the willingness of Moonstruck to partner with organizations like us and…help us to be able to show emerging and local filmmakers content on the big screen through the pandemic was huge.”
The Houston Latino Film Festival was planning for their 5th year anniversary in March 2020. They were flying in filmmakers among others from Mexico, New York, and Los Angeles. Exactly one week away from celebrating their biggest event, they had to cancel because of the pandemic.
“It was really heartbreaking. But I mean, everybody was super understanding. Everyone who bought tickets we told them we were going to postpone and honor their tickets once the event came back,” said Pedro Rivas, program director of the Houston Latino Film Festival organization.
After seeing several pop-up drive-ins in the area, they reached out to Moonstruck as it “seemed to be the perfect one.” The location was close to where the organization first started so those who were familiar with them did not have to drive too far from where they’ve had to have gone before.
Rivas says the staff at Moonstruck, “Allowed it to make it feel like it was our venue for the day,” and they were very accommodating in terms of giving them a non-profit pricing since they could only afford four screenings.
In a hybrid event from March 19 to March 28, they had two nights of in-person feature film showings with a Q&A at Moonstruck. Those who didn’t want to attend were provided with a virtual platform online.
“On Saturday, we showed a film that was local, where part of it took place in the east end of Houston. Some of the subjects of the films actually live in Houston so they were able to attend for their Q&A,” said Rivas.
Since they honored tickets from last year they didn’t make any additional money from the event. However, after a positive response from those who attended, Rivas says they can plan for a possible future event where they can break even and put enough money back into the next production.
“I don’t think any of us would trade the experience that we all shared, just for profit, you know, because a lot of people did really love the experience. I mean, if anything, this tells us okay, we can market this differently,” said Rivas.
As program director, he makes it a point to show films that had never been screened in Houston. With a growing interest in the organization and volunteers reaching out, Rivas says there’s a desire to watch independent films.
“Even talking to Andrew [co-owner of Moonstruck] you know, he really loved the idea of having independent Latino films screening at Moonstruck. I can tell he wants more of that kind of atmosphere of filmmaking and films to be screened,” said Rivas. “You know, in the past when we work with other venues it’s all business, we don’t really get to talk about our love of film so it was really cool getting to talk about films.”
Right now, the Houston Latino Film Festival organization is in fundraising mode and planning for their festival next year. And although they have reserved a venue Rivas says he would love to have multiple venues like including a drive-in portion.
“I want to be able to show a wide variety of content,” said Andrew Thomas, co-owner of Moonstruck, “Even though, on any given night maybe it’s not the thing that makes us the most money. It may be the thing that builds our business the strongest for the long run… so bring me your crazy ideas and if it’s fun, I’ll say yes to it, like we’ll figure it out.”Texas has been ‘Back to normal’ essentially for three months since Governor Abbott reopened businesses to 100% and lifted a state-wide mask mandate. Coronavirus cases continue to go down and almost 48% of people above 12-years-old are fully vaccinated.
Even with this sense of normalcy, Tashiro expects Moonstruck to grow bigger as they continue to be diligent to provide a great experience for their clients, all while following CDC guidelines. In fact, after Memorial Day, they will expand their weekend hours to be open every night.