Oct. 28, 2020
By Kane Webb, Walmart Corporate Affairs
It’s a night made for a drive-in movie. Temperatures in the low 70s, a cool easy breeze, a clear sky dramatic in the twilight.
On this postcard-perfect night in Bryant, Arkansas, Walmart customers Terry Wilburn and his wife are attending their first drive-in movie in, um, “it’s been awhile.” They chuckle about that, then reminisce. They remember going to drive-ins and having to use those old-timey speakers, bulky contraptions that hooked over a rolled-down window, to hear every third word of scratchy dialogue. But tonight, at Walmart cinema 2020, guests tune in to a clear channel on the car radio and, with free admission, there’s no need to cram extra folks in the trunk to save on ticket costs.
It’s an old spin on the new normal, where nostalgia meets now. The show that brought the Wilburns out tonight is happening in the parking lot of a Walmart supercenter on the last day of September. It’s part of Walmart’s Drive-In movie series, eight tours covering 160 locations and offering 303 shows to some 40,000 guests in more than 12,000 vehicles.
Long before tonight’s show begins (Men in Black: International), the lot is full, guests having made reservations online within minutes of the event posting. There's no charge, a goodie bag filled with treats, a classic choice between water or a soft drink, plus a screen the size of a football field -- well, at least the whole end zone.
“From the minute the pandemic hit and the world changed, we started to think about what our role is in the world,” said Rich Lehrfeld, who was heavily involved in shepherding this idea from whiteboard to reality. “As a company, we made changes to make our stores safer, to help our associates, to meet our customers’ needs. But we also asked the question, what’s happening to families? During this time, how can we add joy?”
Two nights later, the tour has arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi, where the weather is every bit as good as it was in Arkansas.
A family from Saltillo, Mississippi, enjoys the fresh air through open windows. “Is this gonna be a thing again?” attendee Jennifer Byars asks an associate walking by. She’s informed there’s a movie the next night, which results in cheers from the SUV. She and her husband, Gene, along with their children Alexis, 8, and Lynlee, 11, now have plans for Saturday night. “This is a great idea,” Jennifer says. “We’re really digging the snacks, too. We didn’t know we’d be getting snacks! A free movie AND snacks!”
Another couple, Reggie and Donna Williams of Tupelo, say they were picking up a prescription at their Walmart pharmacy earlier in the day and saw the screen atop the tractor-trailer rig set up in the parking lot. “We thought, why not?” Reggie said. “It’s something to do besides sitting at the house again.”
It’s a common theme among moviegoers. The snacks are tasty, but what everyone here is really starved for is community. And community leaders have bought in big time. For example, the mayor of La Vergne, Tennessee, came out for both nights of shows. It was a political endorsement everyone in town could agree on.
Organizers have noticed another trend: reunions. Extended families separated for months found solace and connection while parked side-by-side in front of the big screen, sharing a movie, a wave and a laugh, a few cherished in-person words from window to window. Zoom, text and phone calls are great. But nothing replaces being there, if from several safe feet away.
People are hungry for entertainment and family time. It was hard to execute, and people from a lot of different teams helped, but I do think we brought joy to the community.
In the end, it makes so much sense: the return of the drive-in movie, a solution in its simplicity. After all, we’ve been battling a virus that's been anything but simple, looking for a way to be together while remaining carefully distanced, finding community without being too communal. If ever an unexpected event were made for a moment in time, maybe it was a drive-in movie during a pandemic at the parking lot of your local Walmart store – a community gathering place through it all.