How Moviewatching in Orange County is Transforming During the Pandemic

With COVID-19 guidelines in place, drive-in theaters are the perfect opportunity for socially-distanced outdoor entertainment, with at least nine locations within driving distance for Orange County residents. 

The six-month movie theater pandemic shutdown in Orange County has led leaders at community movie theaters, local film festivals and entertainment venues to find creative and safe ways to share movies.


Editors’ Note: This story is part of the Voice of OC Youth Media program and produced by digital journalism students. The following student editors guided this story: Alya Hijazi, Kelly Itatani, Jennifer Losch, Faith Smith and Ethan Williams. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Digital Editor Sonya Quick at [email protected]


Eased Coronavirus restrictions have led 62% of movie theaters to reopen but many people are instead enjoying cinema on the sofa, behind a computer screen or in the car.

Drive-ins have made a comeback, as viewers are able to follow social-distancing guidelines while enjoying films with their friends and family.  

Smaller, independent theaters such as The Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, have taken a more modern approach and are launching virtual movie experiences.

Many film festivals that were originally scheduled for in-person shows have also shifted to virtual events. Filmmaker Chris Majocha, a River Admiration Award recipient, says “the online component (of film festivals) has opened up to a broader audience of people who are watching the films.”

Studios, independent distributors and theaters shift closer and closer toward online platforms, expanding opportunities to watch films they may not have been exposed to without virtual cinema.

“As shattering as this situation is, in the long run, COVID-19 might be a blessing in disguise for theatrical movie-going because we all suddenly realize what a summer without movie theaters is like. Now we know exactly it is that we would be losing if we lost movie theaters – the escape, the date night, the community viewing, laughing or gasping with a crowd, the buzz, the popcorn.”

– Dawn Fratini, media historian and professor at Chapman University

While the pandemic has negatively affected many businesses both fundamentally and financially, with each passing day, they improve their abilities to adapt to extreme social change.

Continue reading, or jump to a story below: Film Festivals | Drive-ins | Virtual Cinema | Movie Theaters


Film Festivals Going Virtual

Newport Beach Film Festival

The Newport Beach Film Festival and other local festivals have decided to go virtual this year.

Orange County hosts several film festivals, which collectively draw over 75,000 people annually from around the world. Now thrust into the digital plane, it seems the audiences are only getting larger.

In light of the coronavirus, the scenario of guests assembling in tightly packed theaters needed rethinking. Plus, mandatory quarantines, travel restrictions and closed borders presented more challenges for festival staff and traveling filmmakers. 

To combat these obstacles, many festivals have transitioned to virtual platforms, while others took different approaches to ensure the safety of filmmakers, guests and festival staff while still maintaining the festival’s integrity.

Newport Beach Film Festival, Oct. 1-11

The Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) for 2020 was initially scheduled for April 23-30, then rescheduled again to Aug. 6-13 before announcing that the festival will go virtual Oct. 1-11.

According to the NBFF’s website, there are three ways to enjoy the festival. There is a festival pass which costs $75 and grants attendees access to watch an unlimited amount of NBFF 2020 films. If an attendee would just like to watch one film, there is a single ticket option for $10. The last option is a $5 ticket which allows attendees to watch all collegiate, youth and music videos, according to the festival’s website. The NBFF listed all of this year’s films by categories on its website.

Coast Film Festival, Nov. 12-22

The upcoming Coast Film Festival (CFF) announced its second annual event will take place primarily online from Nov. 12-22. If COVID safety measures permit, organizers hope to host live events at The Ranch in Laguna Beach, but until then, viewers can stream over 40 adventure and environmental documentaries and tune into Q&A’s with directors, professional athletes and industry experts, while staying safe at home.

OC Film Fiesta, Oct. 15-25

To celebrate its 11th anniversary, the OC Film Fiesta chose to virtually screen more than 50 international and local films. Festival director Victor Payan is looking forward to celebrating Orange County’s diversity and multicultural heritage from a new perspective.

“Now going virtual, we can try to reach out and connect larger audiences to those ideas, because they don’t have to leave their house anymore. They can have these cinematic conversations where they live.”

-Victor Payan, festival director of the OC Film Fiesta

From Oct. 15-25, attendees can enjoy the Film Fiesta selected films by purchasing a $75 festival pass.

Viet Film Fest, canceled

For the Viet Film Fest (formerly known as the Vietnamese International Film Festival), safety meant canceling the 2020 festival altogether, which was initially scheduled for October. 

Although the festival chose not to become virtual this year, Ysa Le, executive director of the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA), which founded the film fest, is considering incorporating virtual elements in the future, to expand its international audience.

“If we come back to live, I would like to see if we could capture a bigger audience internationally, especially the Vietnamese audience. But the live interactions, we cannot substitute for that, so maybe half and half,” said Le, who’s also on the executive committee of the Viet Film Fest.

Instead of the film festival, VAALA is presenting the inaugural Viet Book Fest, which will run every Saturday from 3-4 p.m. in October. Accomplished children’s book authors will deliver readings and engage in Q&As on Zoom for $5 each reading. 

On Oct. 24, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen will give a reading of “Chicken of the Sea” with his son Ellison. The moderator of the Q&As will be Maya Lê Espiritu, a third grade teacher, aspiring children’s book author and founder of MaiStoryBook, a project and website that encourages children to read. 

Silent River Film Festival, Aug. 7-16

The Silent River Film Festival conducted its first virtual event on Aug. 7-16, and streamed to over 49 countries, according to Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, festival founder and director. 

The festival prides itself on the diversity of the program, usually involving films from many countries and in many languages, according to Singh-Chitnis. In a virtual setting, the films could stream directly to these countries, allowing for more friends, family and movie lovers to tune into the experience. 

During the festival, Chris Majocha, director of “Hurricane Maria and the Ame-Rican Dream,” won a River Admiration Award for outstanding documentary from his home in Florida. Though Majocha missed out on the in-person comradery and networking opportunities in Orange County, he could see the festival keeping some of its digital elements in upcoming years. 

“I could see the festival moving towards more of a hybrid model in the future, even when we are able to attend in person. Adding a virtual component as well has opened up to a broader audience,” Majocha said.


Drive-Ins Making a Comeback

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton hosted drive-in movie nights this summer in partnership with Santa Ana's Frida Cinema.

The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton hosted drive-in movie nights this summer in partnership with Santa Ana’s Frida Cinema.

The drive-in movie experience peaked in the late 1950s, with 4,000 open locations across the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times, which gradually declined to only 305 as of last year.

Now, with COVID-19 guidelines in place, drive-in theaters are the perfect opportunity for socially-distanced outdoor entertainment, with at least nine locations within driving distance for Orange County residents. 

The following are a few open Orange County and L.A. County drive-in theaters to safely attend with loved ones at leisure.

The Frida Cinema, Santa Ana with pop-ups in currently in Tustin and Anaheim

The Frida Cinema is a nonprofit organization with two main venues in Tustin and Anaheim that has been transitioning from an indoor cinema to pop-up drive-in.

“In the past, we used to do outdoor films more traditionally, where folks would come out on blankets and low-back chairs, but with COVID that was no longer an option. When we realized we had to close the theater, it quickly dawned on me that drive-ins might provide a safe way to congregate.”

– Logan Crow, founder and executive director at The Friday Cinema

The Frida’s events are structured with as little need for personal interaction as possible, with tickets that can be scanned through the car window and a mask requirement for all guests. 

“Turnout has been great, but more than that, the feedback has been wonderful,” Crow said. “Some folks were saying it was the first time they could catch a movie in months.”

Drive-In OC, Anaheim

Drive-In OC kicked off a series July 3 at the City National Grove of Anaheim, with movies and live music exhibited weekly. City National Grove of Anaheim’s general manager Jordan Harding said the business had to completely rethink how to present live entertainment. 

“We’ve been really pleased with the success of the series so far,” Harding said. “Every aspect of Drive-In OC has been engineered to provide the most contactless experience possible. Developing our mobile app seemed to be the key that brought the experience together.”

The app allows customers to order concessions and merchandise that is delivered directly to the vehicle; it additionally facilitates a virtual restroom queue. 

Paramount Drive-in, Paramount (Outside OC)

Manuel Padilla of the Paramount Drive-in is one of the many theater managers who adapted to new protocols and procedures for his theater’s operations. 

“Business has been going great,” Padilla said. “We’ve been much busier since we reopened, even though we’re working with half capacity. We can’t let in more cars than allowed, and [employees] working in the restroom have to crowd-control and wipe down everything as they go.” 

Starlite Movies, San Clemente and Brea in OC, Norco (Outside OC)

Starlite Movies holds a variety of screenings at the Brea Mall, Norco and San Clemente. Further updates and showtimes are accessible via Facebook and Instagram

Mission Tiki & Van Buren Drive-in Theatre, Montclair and Riverside (Outside OC)

Mission Tiki and its sister location, Van Buren Drive-in Theatre, are both multiple-screen drive-ins located in Montclair and Riverside, respectively. 

Rubidoux Drive-in, Riverside (Outside OC)

Rubidoux Drive-in is also located in Riverside. The theater offers private events, including fundraisers, for a minimum of 20-plus adult admissions.

Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry (Outside OC))

Vineland Drive-in is another multi-screen drive-in located in the City of Industry, hosting nightly screenings as well as other events, including an Ugly Sweater Party on Dec. 25. Participants in “ugly sweaters” can receive 50% off a medium-sized popcorn. 

Mentor Me Learning (Huntington Beach)

Mentor Me Learning, a youth leadership nonprofit, began a drive-in series early August as an alternative to its annual gala event. Ashley Dos Santos, Mentor Me Learning founder and lead mentor, chose to avoid virtual fundraisers due to “Zoom fatigue” and her team soon came up with a drive-in series idea. 

“I love seeing people so happy about being outside,” Santos said. “The [drive-in] experience has been nothing but positive.”

Each event averages around 150 guests due to the theater location’s parking lot size.

“The biggest surprise was how many people wanted to come,” Santos said. “We plan on continuing (screenings) until the end of the year.”

Santos looks forward to showcasing holiday-themed screenings by October. 

“We’re going to do a Halloween series, and in November and December we’ll have films promoting the season of giving and gratitude,” she said.


Theaters Going Virtual

The Frida Cinema offers movies virtually during the pandemic.

Over the course of the pandemic, virtual cinema has recently become a more popular form of entertainment. More companies have turned to online platforms for customers to watch and enjoy films while providing the opportunity to support their local theaters. 

How it Works

Virtual cinema is a form of online streaming in which audiences can rent films from independent distributors and art-house theaters. With this platform, films are released on demand for customers to rent and watch as they wish. A portion of the ticket sales goes to theaters while the other is given directly to the film distributor.

Virtual Cinema in California

Located in Santa Ana, The Frida Cinema has taken advantage of the virtual platform to continue making a profit during the pandemic. Once a virtual ticket is purchased, the viewer has up to 48 hours to stream the selected film, and filmmakers receive a portion of the profit.

According to Trevor Dillon, programming director and special events coordinator at the Frida Cinema, virtual streaming has allowed viewers to watch newly released films from the comfort of their living rooms. 

Dillon explains the ways that virtual cinema has rescued small local movie theaters. The new virtual format generates an alternative source of income for the business and, since people cannot physically assemble for their love of cinema, this is the next best option. 

Dillon said, “Of course, right now, we can’t watch movies in packed theaters. It’s not the popcorn or the big screen that makes the difference — that can be had at home — it’s the communal gathering of people to devour entertainment that I love. We’ll see if we ever get that back.”

Theaters outside Orange County have also transitioned to the use of virtual cinema. The Roxie Theater in San Francisco is known for being one of the oldest movie theaters in the world. Don’t let its age fool you; the theater has also taken advantage of the virtual cinema platform while its doors remain temporarily closed. Customers can purchase tickets through The Roxie Theater’s website, where a gallery of films will be available to stream virtually.

Virtual Cinema in the Long Run

Even though virtual cinema has its benefits, there are some concerns about how it could affect the operation of movie theaters in the future.

“If they now have access to new movies at home — and it remains to be seen if that genie can be put back into its bottle when the pandemic peters out — will theaters have any relevance at all?”

-Carl Martin, lead projectionist for The Roxie Theater

“A troubling line that has been crossed with virtual cinema is that ‘new’ movies are now available at home … since the digitization of theaters 10-15 years ago, there is less difference, and most people are more conscious of the convenience of having movies instantly available than they are of the aesthetically diminished experience,” Martin said.

Storytelling and Virtual Cinema

Alexandra Rose, professor and chair of Special Projects and Industry Initiatives at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, has a more optimistic take on the impact of virtual cinema. Although virtual cinema is a newer, alternative option to other formats of entertainment, it does not hinder creative ideas to reach its directed audience, Rose said.

“Whether one chooses a streaming cable venue, a feature film venue, a VR venue; it doesn’t matter. Often the choice of platform depends on the creative’s view as to how [he or she] sees her or his material being communicated most effectively,” Rose said.

She relates this to how storytellers have adjusted to the pandemic’s impact on the entertainment industry.

“An event, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, merely changes where they might look for a story to tell; it doesn’t quell any innate creative desires; it may even stoke the flames of creativity but just in a different area. Society can rest assured. Storytellers will always find stories to tell.”

-Alexandra Rose, professor and chair of special projects and industry initiatives at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts

Each business finds itself transforming as a result of the pandemic. And, for some, virtual movies have been able to scratch the itch that many people have to continue supporting the entertainment industry and enjoying cinema.


Movie Theaters Reopening

ALYA HIJAZI, For Voice of OC

An Orange County movie theater.

Movie theaters across the county reopened three weeks ago in Orange County with the easing of Coronavirus closures.

A total of 62% of the county’s theaters are presently open, according to Big Screen, down from the 89% a week prior because Regal this week announced a nationwide temporary closure of theaters.

Industry revenues were steadily increasing over years, but the pandemic put a stop to this trend, according to a recent report by the industry research group IBISWorld.

“Even as industry revenue makes an expected partial recovery in 2021, industry operators will still likely contend with financial scars caused by such a sharp decline in 2020,” states IBISWorld’s report.

Safety Measures

Only about 28% of baby boomers and 17% of millennials feel comfortable going to movie theaters presently, according to a poll by Morning Consult, a data intelligence and market research company.

Theaters reopened for limited indoor movies when Orange County moved from the purple Tier 1 of Coronavirus risk to the red Tier 2. The state mandates theaters limit capacity to 25% or 100 people, whichever is less, and that they make safety modifications (detailed here).

The three big theater chains in Orange County say they have sufficient safety measures, such as a mandatory face mask policy, reduced auditorium capacities, contactless payments, improved air filtration and social distancing guidelines (click here for specific measures: AMC, Cinemark and Regal).

Virtual Competition

“Competition from substitute film viewing methods, such as online streaming platforms, and other forms of entertainment has posed significant sources of external competition for the industry,” states IBISWorld’s report.

While the movie industry has been moving in this direction, AMC is trying its own virtual subscription-less rental service.

Movie Releases

New films such as “The New Mutants” and “Tenet” provide viewers with a range of movies to watch in person, but recent changes such as theater closures have pushed back release dates. While some films, such as DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls World Tour” and Disney’s “Mulan,” are being released on streaming platforms or on-demand, theaters are introducing new efforts to draw movie goers in.

Some chains, such as AMC, have been re-releasing older Hollywood films, like a 40-year anniversary special viewing of the “Empire Strikes Back.”