- Associated Press - Sunday, April 11, 2021

TIGER, Ga. (AP) - Worldwide, annual box office numbers took a 71 percent nose dive in 2020 due to mass theater closures that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the $4.2 billion in reported North American ticket sales, a significant portion of that was due to drive-in screenings and specialized outdoor pop-up events that allowed people to safely watch movies together.

The Tiger Drive-In, one of only 5 drive-in theaters left in Georgia, was able to open for its summer season back in April when all indoor cinemas remained closed, and proved to be a hit with residents of the small Rabun County town of Tiger as well as in surrounding areas.

“We had our best year ever,” owner-operator Tom Major told the Banner-Herald, “and we did it without Hollywood.”

Major’s statement refers to the repeated delays and cancellations of some of the most heavily advertised and hotly anticipated big studio releases for 2020 due to theater closures. Though films like “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Tenet” would’ve drawn even bigger crowds to venues like the Tiger, Major said classic titles like “Grease” and “Dirty Dancing” still sold out every night.

Even when local multiplexes began reopening at limited capacity later in the year, the Tiger Drive-In offered more to its patrons than a regular theater ever could. From live streamed concerts featuring acts like Blake Shelton and Metallica to performances by local bands and even a Democratic Party of Georgia event, the site transformed itself into a cultural hub for the community.

“There was a dance studio in Clarksville that couldn’t hold its indoor recitals, so they filmed them and we showed them on our big screen,” said Majors. “The turnout from friends and family of the dancers was so large, we had to break up the showings into two nights.”

The success of COVID vaccines will likely mean Georgians will see capacity restrictions ease during the summer months, and films like Warner Bros. “Godzilla vs. Kong” are scheduled to open at drive-ins as well as in indoor theaters.

But what Major has done with the Tiger, from retro camping units on the drive-in grounds to a 70-year-old barn recently transformed into a gorgeous AirBnB house, make it a unique destination for those looking to ease the transition from living room viewing to back to the communal experience of going to the movies.

“My wife’s dad opened (the Tiger Drive-In) in 1954, and the first movie they showed was ‘Thunder Road’ starring Robert Mitchum,” said Major. “We’ve opened every season with that movie. It’s sort of the history up here.”

Major noted that a Gainesville lawyer and “Thunder Road” super fan planned to bring a 1955 black Ford Thunderbird, completely recreated to look like the one in the movie, for the drive-ins reopening on March 26. It was unclear as to whether or not patrons will be able to drink from the customized liquor spigot underneath the vehicle.

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