The parking lot of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center was as full as it could be Friday with families snuggled in their hatchbacks, truck beds and back seats. Cars were uniformly spaced out.
Clouds swirled overhead as the sun set, and the banter in the parking lot died down as “Dolittle” started on a big screen ahead.
It was the debut of Movies in the Park(ing Lot). The social-distancing version of the annual film series in Leif Erikson Park was moved to allow for COVID-19 safety guidelines.
In past years, the event could see more than 3,000 people on a good night, when "There's no green space left to sit," so it was essential to make arrangements if they were to continue this year, said Darlene Marshall of the Greater Downtown Council, which helps host the events.
They can allow about 130 cars on the lot at a time, so in order to keep the numbers down, reservations are required, Marshall said.
Tickets are $10 per car, prepay only, and they go on sale one week before the next show. Movies in the Park has been free in the past, but the fees will help. One event can cost $4,000, Marshall said. A third of that goes to movie rights, the rest covers security, porta-potties, staff and marketing.
To hear the film, movie-goers can tune into a radio station, given upon arrival. Everyone is asked to remain in their vehicles, unless they’re using the bathroom or visiting the concessions. Face masks are strongly encouraged when moving outside the vehicle.
Going forward with the series offers the good feelings of what makes Duluth, Duluth, Marshall said.
“A lot of people remembered what drive-in movies were like, a lot of people interested in it for the first time, and most people were just as happy as we were that we could bring it,” she added.
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Movies in the Park began as something for the community, and Trent Edgerton got the idea from a movie himself.
In “The Wedding Planner,” Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey watch an outdoor film in a park. “There’s gotta be a way to do that that’s easy … on a grand scale,” Edgerton recalled thinking.
After some research, he bought an inflatable screen and a projector. He rented a space at Leif Erikson Park, and the event was off and running.
It grew larger and larger. Edgerton found sponsors. “The movie rights alone are massive,” he said. And, eventually, to keep planning and promotion up, the Greater Downtown Council stepped in.
Today, Edgerton and his wife, Brita Edgerton, manage Twin Ports Outdoor Movies. They host Movies in the Park, the current version at the DECC, and other drive-ins at regional churches and schools.
This is a perfect blend of values and hobbies.
“Trent is a huge movie buff, and he’s in the production world and he has a huge heart for the community,” Brita said.
The Edgertons knew each other through work. Soon after she attended a movie in the park, “I got to be part of the crew, and I got to be part of the partnership,” she said.
Over the years, they have enjoyed seeing the repeat film-goers and running into family members on Friday nights. Brita described a scene common for those who attend.
When the moon is out, a ship has its light out on the lake, the park is full of people and you pan, and there’s the aerial lift bridge.
“You can’t get a better Duluth moment,” she said.
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On Friday outside the DECC, many brought blankets, pets and stuffies for the first evening. All ages were in attendance.
Some people brought their own snacks. Others munched on bright cotton candy from the concession stand, handed out by attendants wearing face masks.
The sky changed from baby blue, to navy, to charcoal.
This was the Robinson family’s first time going to an outdoor film in Duluth.
“We wish they’d do this all the time, it’s easier with kids to be in the car if they fall asleep,” Christie Robinson said.
“Drive-ins aren’t really a thing anymore,” added her husband, Sean, who recalled his first drive-in movie, “Wild Wild West.” While the family has kept busy in the outdoors during the pandemic this summer, he was happy to hear about this option.
The couple had their three kids in tow: Hartlie, 3; Harper, 5; and Asher, 11 months.
The oldest two snuggled with blankets in the hatchback of the family’s car, next to their dad, as “Doolittle” beamed on a large screen ahead.
“When we were driving down here, it almost felt like a pre-COVID world. Even though this is a new thing, it feels like a kind of normalcy,” Christie said.
If you go
What: Movies in the Park(ing Lot)
Where: Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center
When: sunset on Fridays through Aug. 28
Cost: $10 per car, reservations and tickets are required
(sold out) 8:50 p.m. July 24, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” PG
8:45 p.m. July 31, “Jumanji: The Next Level” PG-13
8:35 p.m. Aug. 7, “Harriet” PG-13
8:25 p.m. Aug. 14, “A Dog's Journey” PG
8:10 p.m. Aug. 21, “Peanut Butter Falcon” PG-13
8 p.m. Aug. 28, “Abominable” PG