No one can go to movie theaters right now, so film lovers are either streaming at home or taking the atavistic route back to the drive-in. Due to the needs of social distancing, giant outdoor screens have been recreating the moviegoing experience for many Americans this summer, so long as patrons remain in their cars.
Doreen Sayegh, who owns the Rialto and Cranford movie theater buildings in Cranford, New Jersey, saw an opportunity to marry the outdoor experience with some of our favorite summer films of yore. And raise some money for charity at the same time.
Sayegh’s family has been connected to the movie business in one way or another since her childhood. She first sold popcorn at the family’s theaters when she was 8 years old, and continued running theaters well into adulthood. In 2010, during a downturn, her family stopped operating the Rialto and Cranford as theaters but retained ownership of the properties. Last August, her tenant left both locations, and so Sayegh decided it was time to give the Cranford Theater a much-needed facelift.
It seemed to be a promising new life for the old theaters, until the coronavirus arrived in New Jersey—one of the hardest-hit states of the first wave—this spring. At one of the final screenings before lockdown, Bayegh and her staff gave out popcorn and encouraged patrons to stay home.
“In an effort to be socially responsible, we shut down the theater before the mandated [state] shutdown of [all[ movie theaters,” she said.
At the same time, Bayegh began selling large bags of popcorn to customers for at-home viewing. She also retailed traditional movie candy and other such items on her website, not knowing how long she would have to remain closed.
“While that was going on, I started hearing of drive-in movies making a comeback—a business I always wanted to be in but sadly had become a dying art,” Bayegh said. “I approached the township of Cranford, and they welcomed it with open arms.”
But safety protocols would need to be aggressively put in place before the township would allow a new outdoor screen to be erected. Surprisingly, it all came together surprisingly quickly.
“The supplies were delivered on a Friday, the screen built on a Saturday, painted on Monday morning, and we were testing the projector by Monday evening,” Bayegh said of her impromptu drive-in.
“Grease” screened on June 18, followed the next evening by “Back to the Future.” The Cranford Theater’s summer drive-in series has also included such audience favorites as “Ghostbusters” and “Goonies.”
“I will never forget hearing everyone singing along to ‘Grease’ and the clapping at the end of each showing,” Bayegh said. “The movies we choose are…fan favorites and that are family-friendly.
“The studios recognize this, which is why they have created ‘nostalgic’ movie packages for exhibitors to choose from.”
In addition to giving the public a way to safely watch movies during the pandemic, Sayegh saw it as an opportunity to raise money for people whose economic prospects have been severely affected by the virus and its economic fallout.
“I read online that Cranford Family Cares was running low on food supplies, so the next day we began collecting donations,” she said of partnering with the local charity. The public can donate food directly during future drive-in screenings. “It’s amazing to see the community come together to help each other out,” Bayegh said.
On July 11, for a screening of the original “Superman,” the Cranford Theater Drive-in collected funds for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which raises awareness for spinal cord injuries such as that which Christopher Reed suffered in the mid-’90s—paralyzing him for the remainder of his life.
The theater will partner with other charities through the remainder of the summer, including the Jaycees, the Scouts and various Central Jersey sporting leagues.
“I can’t emphasize enough on how thankful we are to the township of Cranford for allowing us to bring a drive-in to [our town]. Together we have made so many people happy while also finding ways to give back,” Bayegh said, adding that not only has it helped to raise needed money for charities during a tough time, but also has provided a way for people to safely again enjoy the collective moviegoing experience.
Upcoming films for August include “A League of Their Own” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Bayegh said the plan is to continue the drive-in screenings and charity-raising activities into the fall if all goes well.
“Movies have always been an escape from reality,” she said. “And [with] that taken away, I wanted to do something that would be fun, safe, create memories and make people happy at a time where we all needed a pick-me-up. And what better way than to bring that escape from reality outside and create the magic of movies under the stars.”