CBF Productions has staged more than 50 drive-in shows at Ventura (Calif.) County Fairgrounds this summer. (Courtesy CBF Productions)

California company switched over from festivals to car-based concerts

Vincenzo Giammanco, CEO of Ventura, Calif.-based CBF Productions, knows a thing or two about pivoting.

In the late 2000s he was working as on-air morning show talent at local radio station KHAY, but the housing market crash and resulting recession resulted in his layoff, leading him to move into festival production with the launch of CBF.

The initials stand for California Beer Festival, the company’s first event, which had a 10-year run through 2018 in downtown Ventura. The company still produces 12 “boutique festivals” like the Boots & Brews country music festival and the Ventura Wine Walk, events that draw anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people, but the coronavirus pandemic shut those down for 2020, at least.

Giammanco was forced to lay off his staff of eight full-timers and find a new way forward.

Music under the stars at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. (Courtesy CBF Productions)

Enter Concerts in Your Car, one of the early incarnations of the now ubiquitous drive-in shows, which got started in June at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, a facility nestled along the Pacific Ocean about 50 miles north of Los Angeles that has seen its annual summertime fair and other events shut down.

Since June, CBF has put on more than 50 drive-in shows in Ventura — featuring acts like Third Eye Blind and comedians David Spade and Rob Schneider, as well as movies — and is now poised to expand to the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego next week and the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix in mid-October. Coming shows include Snoop Dog, Cypress Hill, the Beach Boys and a Halloween-themed Oingo Boingo performance.

The drive-in events accommodate about 700 vehicles each — arranged in an in-the-round configuration with large 4K screens visible to all — and range in price from $99 to $200, with vehicle capacity limited to legal passenger load. Buses and RVs are not allowed.

There are no concessions, but guests can bring their own food and beverages. Portable toilets are provided.

So far, the shows have allowed Giammanco to put his staff back to work and for the company to turn a small profit, while bringing in some badly needed revenue for the fairgrounds. He declined to discuss the financial arrangement between CBF and the venues, but said they are more than pleased with the opportunity to stage events again.

“It’s not supposed to replaced traditional concerts. It’s really another form, but right now I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what this is going to be,” Giammanco said. “People really enjoy this. It’s a good way to enjoy live entertainment, and we’re really excited to be adapting to the times and making this happen.”

Asked if he sees drive-ins going away in a post-COVID world, Giammanco said they are likely to survive in some form.

“We think that there is a life for them and we are really doubling down on this space,” he said. “There’s something really cool about this. There’s nostalgia with the drive-in, but there is also just coming in and parking, having your space, watching a concert from the safety of your car … not everybody likes the big (15,000 to) 20,000 people mosh pit setting with people walking around and bumping into one another. Some people like to have their own space.”

Being able to control the sound — stage sound is complemented by an FM signal — is another aspect that guests seem to like.

Giammanco said artists are showing flexibility in terms of fees and many have expressed joy at being able to get on stage and perform again.

“They’re working with us,” he said. “Truthfully, it’s not about the money, it’s about getting out and on stage and doing what they love and what they are good at. And when you see bands that had been touring every single day and they have been home since March, and then when they get on that stage and how appreciative they are, the experience is just priceless.

“We’ve had some big wins and some really great acts. Our plan is to plan a couple more (venues) so we can route them and be able to entertain more people but also to attract larger artists.”

The offerings would include Broadway-type stage productions, a circus and a holiday-themed drive-in at Christmastime.