Until the Coyote Drive-In opened this month just north of downtown Fort Worth, Tarrant County had been without a drive-in theater for some 20 years. They began falling on hard times when the VCR era began in the early ’80s, and by the early ’90s they’d practically dropped off the pop culture radar entirely.
All of which presented an unusual challenge for Brady Wood and Glenn Solomon, the minds behind the Coyote Drive-In .
“Some people didn’t even know what a drive-in is,” says Solomon. “We’d walk into a (city) office and say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and they’d be like, ‘Now wait a minute, hold on a second, you can’t do that,’ and then you gotta kind of explain it.”
Likewise, Solomon also had to explain the appeal of American Graffiti, the 1973 classic that he decided to pair with Grease as one of several “pre-opening” week double features the week of May 6.
“I said to (a young woman he was working with), ‘I bet your parents weren’t even alive when American Graffiti came out,’” he says. “And she said, ‘Well, they’re old. They’re 43.’”
Fortunately for Wood, 45, and Solomon, 47, age doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to drive-in curiosity. The three-screen theater officially opened Friday, May 10, and the Saturday-night showing of Iron Man 3 that I attended was packed. Even more packed was the Canteen, the theater’s concession stand, where many moviegoers brought exuberant children and a few brought dogs, which are allowed if leashed. Many drivers backed their pickups and SUVs into spaces, let down the tailgates, set up camp chairs, and blasted the theater’s FM sound (each screen is assigned a different frequency) for an atmosphere that was holiday-weekend festive.
Candace Garza was there with her family, including her husband and 5-year-old niece, Layla. Garza’s grandparents were in the adjacent pickup.
“My parents used to go to the [Twin], the ones that were off of I-30 by Beach,” Candace said before an Iron Man 3 screening (her grandfather, Ector, remembered seeing 1973’s The Exorcist at the Twin). “I’m very excited. The movie hasn’t even started and my niece already said she’s having so much fun.”
Wood, a Dallas entrepreneur whose work has included such Deep Ellum clubs as Trees and Gypsy Tea Room, and Solomon, whose family used to run Gulf Coast Theaters (which included 50 drive-ins as well as some indoor theaters), expected the Coyote to do well. But even they seemed surprised by the reaction to the pre-opening alone.
“We’ve been overwhelmed on our website,” Wood says. “We had 11,000 hits [May 8] alone, and it overloaded our server. I’m not sure what, relative to everything else, this means, but we also had 6,000 [Facebook] ‘likes’ in one day. And we didn’t buy them. ... So there’s a lot of pent-up demand.”
North Texas has two other drive-ins, the Brazos in Granbury and the Galaxy in Ennis (which, Wood says, inspired him to try his own drive-in concept). A smattering of others exist across the state, according to Drive-InMovie.com. Conventional wisdom is that they’re fading away, but Solomon and Wood, who plan to build more drive-ins, suspect otherwise.
“I think people are yearning for a simpler time,” Wood says. “I think the world is just hectic right now, and to get outside and be under the stars, it’s different. That’s not what we’re doing when we socialize with our friends. We’re getting online, we’re stuck in schedules. When you go to the drive-in, it’s so relaxed and you can kick back. And I think people remember drive-ins as something that they loved to do, and they slipped away, and nobody noticed until they were gone.”
Growing up in a family that owned a movie-theater chain, Solomon has heard many predictions that all movie theaters would go away, killed off by either cable or the VCR or on-demand movies. “It seems to always survive and bounce back even stronger,” he says. “And [the Coyote] is a new way for people to enjoy a film.”
But the drive-in is anything but an overnight success. Wood and Solomon expected to have the drive-in operational by Memorial Day Weekend 2012. In February 2012, the Tarrant Regional Water District agreed to lease the approximately 20-acre site to Coyote Theaters for 10 years, in part to gain some branding for Trinity Uptown, a $909 million Trinity River Vision flood-control and economic development project. But a series of delays followed, with the drive-in opening nearly a year after its original projected opening date.
“The lesson: Never announce your opening date — twice,” Wood says with a laugh. “No drive-in has been built in an urban setting in probably 40 years. So every code, every infrastructure requirement...over the past 40 years that applied to something has never been applied to this concept.” Projection booths became larger and more expensive than originally planned, because they had to stand up to building codes. .
Wood praises the TRWD for the way it worked with him and Solomon to make the drive-in happen; he says he had a deal in another city that he won’t name, but that they were too resistant to the vision for the drive-in. “They weren’t trying to help us build a drive-in,” he says. “They were trying to make us build a parking lot.”
The pre-opening week was designed to work out bugs before the official opening. The founders continue to encourage theatergoers to suggest improvements via the Coyote Drive-In website (www.coyotedrive-in.com) and Facebook page. One of the things the staff has learned is that it needs to work on the traffic flow in the 20-acre site (by Saturday, traffic seemed to be flowing slowly but smoothly).
“We hope the patrons will be a little forgiving in the first few weeks,” says Wood. “We still have a lot of work to do, but from a logistical standpoint, it’s been a very positive week.”