Bittersweet final showing at New Kingston Drive-In
Patrons disappointed, but not surprised by closure
This past Sunday, just two months shy of its second anniversary, the New Kingston Drive-In had its final showing. Scores of movie fans showed up to support the venue’s grand finale, with attendance higher than it had been in months. Just past the scheduled 7:30 p.m. showtime, a line of cars reaching the main road of Dominica Drive preceded the ticket booth. It begs the question, with such an overwhelming show of support, why did the drive-in suffer?
Speaking with the night’s attendees, there was a prevailing sense of disappointment, but some patrons weren’t entirely surprised. “I came on Independence weekend. When I came here, you could see that the turnout was low. Maybe marketing could have made that a little better,” Renee Singh, who attended the show with her children and her friend Pamela McLoughlin, told The Gleaner.
For McLoughlin, the timing of the closure created the perfect opportunity to have a family outing. “It’s the last night; we decided to take the kids out just before school starts.” Aside from seeing a movie at the drive-in one last time, the privacy of the experience was also a driving factor. “The convenience level here is really good, especially having young kids. The comfort in the car, if they’re getting a little irritable. If they want to sleep or make a little noise, it’s a better experience for them,” she shared.
The privacy the drive-in provides is also touted by Lisa Williams, who attended in the company of her husband Phillip and their children, who enjoyed the freedom to frolic during intermission. “We’re not so sure we love the running around, but they’re good. They enjoy it.”
For the young ones, it was their first drive-in experience, something that Lisa Williams was keen on sharing. “When we were kids we used to enjoy it, so we wanted to give them that chance.” Before the pandemic, she was an avid moviegoer, but concerns for health and safety quelled that enthusiasm — the drive-in’s isolated viewing made for a welcome substitute. “We have an uncle who has assisted living. He would be nervous around a group of people, but he was okay coming to the movies here. We would bring a chair for him to sit and watch.”
The set-up of the drive-in quelled concerns; however, when asked if they preferred the drive-in to the indoor cinemas, the preference was for the latter. “Before, there used to be less street lights, so if you really love the show or the franchise, it would be better indoors,” said Williams.
The New Kingston Drive-In opened in direct response to COVID-19. At a time when indoor cinemas were disallowed, moviegoers could arrive in their cars, keeping a safe distance. Despite the seemingly perfect solution, challenges abounded from the very beginning. The location was plagued with heavy rain on opening night, making the ‘ginormous’ screen imperceptible. Even with clear skies, the surroundings presented an immovable obstacle. Sound and light pollution frequently obscured the visual and audio experience, and trouble with the radio frequency was sometimes an issue.
For Steven Cooke, executive director of Palace Amusement, those experiential challenges were overwhelming. “People have come to expect Palace to give quality product on the screen. It’s just not achievable with the drive-in.” Cooke also noted the recent developments that exacerbated the situation. “When they opened this (New Kingston Business Centre parking lot) a few months ago, it made the picture quality that much worse.” He went on to compare the environment to his time as a concession manager in 1988 at the same location. “In 1988, the only distraction we had was an elevator going up and down in a nearby building. None of this was a problem. Especially on Friday night, the club right there is blasting lights and music.” When I asked him if he was pleased with the turnout, he was indeed satisfied, but saddened that it took the closure to garner such an audience. “I didn’t think Jamaica would see a drive-in my lifetime again. I think a lot of people here are trying to catch it for that same reason,” said Cooke.
Yet, with nostalgia at its peak, the attendance of the indoor cinemas was vast by comparison. Even when restrictions allowed for just 60 per cent of the seating capacity for the cinemas, Cooke says the preference was clear. “It served its purpose during the pandemic, but the majority of people have gone back to the indoor cinemas,” he shared.
Though the numbers suggest that this is the case, a group of friends nearby shared that they were disappointed, but not surprised. “We’re regular drive-in goers. We’re a group of friends that come to the drive-in and hang out. We’re gonna miss it, and we want it to come back.” As regular attendees, they could testify to the low turnout in recent months. “Haven’t seen this many people here in a long time. We weren’t surprised to hear it’s closing, but very disappointed. We don’t go to the movies often, but we prefer the drive-in because this vibe is nice,” said one friend.
Despite the sombre event, spirits did not dwindle. Echoes of laughter and jubilation surpassed the sound of the film itself. There was a lot of love for the drive-in, and it was easy to see why. People could come in their pickup trucks and comfortable SUVs. Families, and friends, bringing their luxury folding chairs and fortified speaker systems for what would make for a wholly unique experience. The most you can control at the cinema is where you sit and what you eat. You could have a night out at the drive-in, tailor-made for you and yours.
As the film started playing, trailers of upcoming movies began to play, but one could not help but feel a sense of pre-emptive loss. These trailers were the most anyone would see of these films on the gigantic drive-in screen. The venue had its issues, and a consistently quality viewing experience wasn’t guaranteed. Yet on a night like this, with cool winds, a pitch-black sky, with the lights of towering business places dimmed, and nary a motorbike in earshot, the drive-in was an experience like no other.
Finally, I asked Cooke if this was the last Jamaica would see of a drive-in cinema from the Palace Amusement Company. He said plainly, “I don’t see it happening, but we never take anything off the table.”