The dream was always the same.
When Nayib Estefan and his wife, Lara, moved back to Miami in 2012 after 10 years in Los Angeles to raise their newborn son, he missed the repertory theaters in Hollywood where he had been able to watch cult movies he loved — "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," John Waters comedies, Lamberto Bava's "Demons" — projected on the big screen on 35mm film.
"I had only seen those movies on VHS, and I couldn't believe how great they looked," Estefan said. "When I moved back, my plan was to open a drive-in, because there was no midnight or cult movie scene in Miami. Also how is it that no one had done a drive-in in Miami, which has year-round drive-in weather?"
A decade later, Estefan has achieved his dream. The Nite Owl Drive-In Theater has been operating for nearly a month during a soft 60-day opening.
The drive-in, located on a 60,000-square-foot lot owned by his parents Gloria and Emilio, screens two movies per night.
The $750,000 drive-in was made possible by grants and assistance from the Knight Foundation, the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, Zoo Miami and Fairchild Tropical Garden.
The theater houses 70 cars and features a 53-foot screen capable of withstanding a Category 5 hurricane and a 4K laser projector housed inside a retrofitted Airstream trailer.
The sound is pumped through FM radio, so there's no noise to bother the residents of the condo and apartment skyscrapers surrounding the theater.
Tickets are $19.95 for a car with two people and an additional $10 per person, but admission comes with a $20 voucher for the cinema's concession stand, which sells everything from Materva to gourmet popcorn to marshmallow fritters. Snacks are ordered through the theater's website, niteowldrivein.com, and delivered to your car by masked wait staff.
Even restroom breaks require a concierge, to ensure you wear a mask outside your car.
On weekends during the day, the drive-in will become a drive-through farmers market, with locally grown fruits and vegetables delivered to your car.
The Nite Owl arrives with perfect timing, since it eliminates all of the COVID-related fears that have kept audiences away from movie theaters. It also offers something no other drive-in can: a live backdrop of glittering downtown Miami.
"One of the coolest things about it is that there's planes flying over and then it's like this backdrop of buildings," said Jorge Moreno, who attended a screening of "Suspiria" at the drive-in last week.
"You're in downtown Miami, the screen looks amazing. You can't probably do this in many parts of the world."
Although Miami-Dade was a drive-in mecca from the 1950s to the '70s, the theaters had disappeared altogether when Estefan returned from Los Angeles, done in by multiplexes and home video rentals.
So Estefan began to explore the possibility and reached out to city officials about using the vacant plot of land in downtown Miami owned by his parents.
Those conversations fizzled, but Estefan found other outlets for his desire to screen movies for the public. He began his unofficial career in film exhibition in the backroom of the Wynwood bar Gramps, in a room styled after the Black Lodge in "Twin Peaks."
A year later, he launched a midnight film series at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, screening everything from "2001: A Space Odyssey" to the gender-bending musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" with its composer and singer in attendance.
The screenings grew so popular that in 2016 he relocated to O Cinema Miami Beach, expanding his audience capacity from 140 to 304 seats.
As his following grew, Estefan struck out on his own with the Nite Owl Theater, a repertory house with stand-alone locations in the Design District, the Goodlet Park Theater in Hialeah and most recently the Firebird Theater inside the former Macy's store in downtown Miami.
He had just signed a five-year lease for a storefront location in Little Haiti when the COVID pandemic shut everything down — including his former plans for the new theater.
But that stroke of bad luck resulted in Estefan being able to create the drive-in he had always wanted.
"I think this is what I was born to do," he said. "All the experience I got at indoor venues prepared me for the drive-in. All the relationships I created with the studios are paying off now. And because of the pine nugget mulch we used to cover the entire lot, it smells like a Christmas village.
"The whole journey reminds me of 'Twin Peaks,' " he said. "We went from the Black Lodge [at Gramps] to the forest. And there are even owls living in some of the 150-year-old trees on the site."