Stand-up comedians (clockwise from top-left) James Mullinger, Brad Doiron, Joe Revell, Katherine Cairns and Sam MacDonald (photo: Sean McQuaid)

Double Feature

The Brackley Drive-in

by Sean McQuaid

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So says the oft-quoted line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; and it feels pretty true in PEI’s pandemic era, where rare glimmers of communal fun can help brighten a darkly isolated summer.

One particular bright spot is the flickering film projections of PEI’s own Brackley Drive-In, which has not only kept operating during the pandemic but has even completed a major expansion this year, clearing some of the nearby woodland to erect a second screen and creating rows of new parking to go along with it.

Those best and worst times? COVID-19 has devastated conventional movie theatres, since crowded indoor spaces seem dangerous in a pandemic; but drive-in movie theatres can survive and even thrive under these conditions. Patrons can enjoy a night out at the movies in the comfort and safety of their own cars.

By a happy coincidence, Brackley’s screen-doubling expansion means they still have the capacity for profitable levels of attendance this year, even with pandemic measures making it necessary to park cars farther apart.

Ironically, heavyweight film studio Disney’s rental restrictions motivated Boyle’s expansion plan, but they also unwittingly helped Boyle figure out how to make this expansion a reality.

In recent years, Disney began insisting that exhibitors like Brackley had to commit to a three-week run if they wanted to show the studio’s new releases. With Disney’s many acquisitions—the Muppets, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, Fox and more—giving them ever-expanding market share, it wasn’t practical for Boyle to shun them; but with a single screen, committing to any one movie for weeks at a time seemed risky and limiting.

Boyle decided the answer was a second screen, so he could show new Disney releases while making room for other films. The key to making this happen was an idea Boyle got from a Disney movie premiere event, where a temporary outdoor movie screen was built by stacking together shipping containers as a structure on which to mount a screen. Boyle did the same thing with his second screen, though its four stories of oversize shipping containers are welded together and supported by guy-wires for added stability.

The newly expanded drive-in has provided a space for socially distanced community events, such as June’s Colonel Gray High School graduation ceremony, and has also filled the pandemic’s theatrical entertainment void with special events, ranging from remotely simulcast shows like a recent Garth Brooks concert, and prerecorded content like an upcoming PEI Symphony concert; to local live entertainment such as Ceilidh in the City’s concerts fronted by PEI singer Kendall Docherty, and a standup comedy festival in August featuring the likes of Dennis Trainor, James Mullinger, Brad Dorion, Katherine Cairns, Joe Revell and Sam MacDonald.

And as new Hollywood movie releases finally start to trickle out, the Brackley Drive-In is ready. August 14 marked the first time Brackley ever debuted two new movies on two screens at the same time, the goofy animated SpongeBob Movie and scary thriller Unhinged (as Boyle notes, two screens also allows for more varied programming in terms of genre and target demographics).

If Boyle’s plans pan out, the drive-in’s programming should include newly released movies for the rest of the season, such as Tenet and The New Mutants (both opening August 28) and October’s Wonder Woman 1984.

Says Boyle, “We’re going to stay open as late in the season as we can to entertain Islanders.”

reviewSean McQuaid
Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered Hansard reporter by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cats and untold thousands of comic books.