It’s opening night at the Mendon Twin Drive-In, and business is good. Cars are lined up in every other spot in the lot, with poles and cinderblocks between them for social distancing purposes. At a minute past midnight, the screens light up with the first movies of the season: Rocky Horror Picture Show on one, and Jurassic Park on another. The Memorial Day start is a late one for the theater in Mendon, Mass., but it’s the first day the business is allowed to operate under state regulations enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The pandemic has upended “the experience economy” — across the country, everything from concerts to sporting events to sit-down restaurants are closed, cancelled or radically changed. But those changes have led to a big opportunity for drive-in movie theaters.

Drive-ins have experienced a steady decline for the last 60 years, as customers exchanged the experience of watching from behind the wheel for the comfort and convenience of indoor theaters. In 1951, the U.S. had more than 4,000 drive-in theater screens. Now there are about 300, compared with tens of thousands of screens at indoor cinemas, according to the National Association of Theater Operators. In Massachusetts, there are only four operating drive-in theaters.

And while the pandemic has led to tough times for indoor theaters — which remain closed statewide — it has led to a boom in the drive-in business, operators say.

At the Mendon Twin Drive-In, tickets for opening night sold out in about 18 hours, according to Dave Andelman, one of the theater's owners. Melony Forcier, director of operations for Your Neighborhood Theatres, which operates drive-ins in Johnson, Rhode Island and Bangor, Maine, says the theaters have had two complete sellouts.

Sign for the Mendon Twin Drive In, with text saying that every show is sold out
Drive-in movie theater operators are experiencing a boom in business as Americans are looking for a safe and socially distant night out.
Lisa Williams WGBH News

Since indoor theaters have been closed, some theater owners without drive-ins are getting creative: the Plaza Theater of Burlington, Wisconsin is projecting movies on the wall of its building and using its parking lot as a “pop-up drive-in.” Others, like the Broadway Metro of Eugene, Oregon, are hosting virtual theater nights. Patrons log on, stream movies, and can have beer and popcorn delivered to their homes from the theater’s concession stand.

Some are even creating theaters where none ever existed. Marco Shalma of MASC Hospitality is part of a team turning the parking deck of Yankee Stadium into a drive-in. For Shalma, it is a way for his business to bounce back from the cancellation of in-person events.

“Between March 10 and March 14, everything just kind of collapsed,” said Shalma. "Every plan that we had for the year or any event that we worked on since last October completely disappeared. We passed pretty quickly through the five stages of grief and thought, ‘Okay, what do we do next?’”

Shalma added, “What really excites me is to be able to be there and see smiling faces, and see people that really enjoy it and feeling a little normal again.”

Andelman said he feels the same way.

“There’s been no school, no sports, no parks, no beach, no friends, no bookstores,” he said. “And now your mom and dad can take you to the drive-in, where you can see a double feature and get some fried dough and popcorn and feel safe, and have something to look forward to. And that was a lot of what drove me in this whole process.”

That feeling of safety is key. A recent Suffolk University/WGBH News/Boston Globe poll found that many Massachusetts residents would be reluctant to go to restaurants or sporting events even if those venues were open. Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer of the National Association of Theater Operators, said theaters will have to strictly follow public health guidelines to make customers feel safe again.

“No message from theater operators is going to say it’s safe to come back," he said. "What’s going to happen is that [patrons] are going to see what [theater operators] are doing and judge for themselves and come back if they feel secure about it.”

Drive-ins like Mendon Twin are also making changes to ensure safety and accordance with Gov. Charlie Baker's reopening guidance. The theater has reduced the number of parking spots. Ticket sales are online, to avoid cash changing hands. Plexiglass now covers the concessions, and customers can use an app for curbside food pickup. Staff made custom masks with images of hot dogs, pizza and french fries.

“As long as these are weird times, let’s just get weird and embrace it.” said Andelman. “We want to be safe, but we want kids to have a good time, too.”

“We did have to tell some people that they did need to wear masks,” said Forcier of Your Neighborhood Theatres. “And that’s pretty much the normal, I’m sure, that’s happening in most businesses that are requiring a mask to enter.”

Andelman, too, says he’s going to be strictly enforcing safety rules at the Mendon Twin.

“It has always been our policy that you’ll either obey the rules and staff instructions or you will be ejected without refund,” he said, adding that he’ll be running the business every night himself until he’s sure things are going smoothly. He also hired a police detail for the first few nights.

Judging by ticket sales, customers are ready to return to the drive-in, even if they may not be ready to go back to sitting in an indoor theater yet.

For movie fans Arthur Robillard and Deb Briggs of Watertown, Mass., trips to the drive-in are a highlight of the summer. Robillard said they bring back childhood memories; he remembers going to the South Shore Plaza Twin as a kid with his parents.

Briggs had never been to a drive-in before she met Robillard.

“I grew up in the city without a car,” she said. "I thought that drive-ins were something people on TV did. As a kid I didn’t even think they were a real thing.”

But drive-ins became part of the couple's courtship, and they say they hope to return this year — a sliver of normalcy in what portends to be a very abnormal summer.

“No matter how many times you’ve seen Jaws," said Briggs, "it’s just a whole different thing on a screen that big.”