Here is a fun fact about drive-in movie theatres: almost every one of the 320-ish remaining operations in the United States is an independent mom & pop business. Sure, there are a few operators who own a handful of theatres, sometimes a mix of drive-in and hardtop venues, but this isn’t a commercial enterprise that has retained any major corporate or theatre chain presence.
As a consequence, every drive-in movie theatre is unique. This sets the drive-in experience apart from the stale, ‘sameness’ product delivered by chain theatres that dominate the current motion picture exhibition landscape. Each drive-in is an individual reflection of its community, its history and the character of its management. There should be a heavy emphasis on the word character, since ‘a character’ is the most common descriptive applied to someone crazy enough to keep one of these theatres going.
My wife Leigh and I joined this most exclusive and curious of fraternities five years ago. In a country of 328 million souls, we like to joke that we are ‘one in a million’, but the math actually checks out. It is worth noting that there can be a distinction between a drive-in operator and a drive-in owner. Not all operators own their theatre and not all owners operate. It is relatively common for a drive-in operation to be leased by a person or group who does not own the property. In recent years, several successful drive-ins have been closed not for lack of business, but rather by the property owner’s decision to sell the land for another type of use. When we revived the Greenville Drive-In in 2015, we began as lease operators. We purchased the property outright in 2018 and we now control our own destiny in this regard.
There are three types of operator in the drive-in theatre community. The first and most numerous is the ‘legacy’ operator. These multi-generational operators have either inherited it from a family member or perhaps they were long-time employees who eventually took over the reins when the family lost interest. The second group is comprised of the ‘drive-in geeks’. These are drive-in theatre super fans that decided to take their passion pro and stepped into the vacuum of a fading operation, propping it back up with their love. In a few cases, they are building new theatres from scratch. Bless them. We are in a much smaller third category. We are the accidental operators.
In a thousand years, I never imagined owning a drive-in movie theatre. Most of our friends and family, however, would acknowledge that such a quixotic endeavor is quite in character for us. How we came to lease the Greenville Drive-In in the first place is a story for another time. What is germane to this essay is that we had no background nor experience in running a movie theatre. I came out of film & television production, so I understood technically how to get a movie on a screen. From my film history classes in university, I understood that the motion picture exhibition business is less about movies and more about selling popcorn. That is pretty much the extent of what I knew about running a movie theatre.
Before reviving the Greenville Drive-In, we engaged a film booker. This is a company that serves as the liaison between smaller theatres and the movie studios to navigate and negotiate the terms of licensing movies to be shown to the public. The first thing our booker said to me in 2015 was ‘The movie studios want to put you out of business’. He was, and still is, correct. He didn’t mean ‘The Greenville Drive-In’, specifically. He meant us as a rural, single screen movie theatre and, to a larger extent, movie theatres in general. If you look around, you will see very, very few single screen movie theatres in business. Most of the remaining single screen operations are non-profit and/or arthouses with very niche programming. They exist mostly in larger communities with universities. (There are exceptions to this. The Park Theatre up the road in Cobleskill, NY is a single screen first-run house and it is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Kudos!)
Additionally, the film studios would love to cut out ALL theatres and sell directly to you at home in the form of subscription services or pay-per-view. This was already well underway before COVID-19, but the pandemic has rapidly accelerated this transition. The attrition of movie theatres will be sizable as a result. How sizable is anyone’s guess, but this is absolutely a watershed moment in the hundred-plus year history of motion picture exhibition. The way we watch movies is being changed forever.
From the outset of our journey, we had to decide whether we wanted to be a first-run house or not. This would be a good time to clear up a common misconception about the Greenville Drive-In. We are a digital house. One of the first things we did in 2015 was remove the original 35mm projectors and install a modern Christie projector and DCP server. Technically speaking, we could show first-run mainstream movies. After talking to our booker and looking at how the studios structure their first-run deals, we determined there were three reasons NOT to be a first-run house.
The first and biggest reason is that for licensing first-run movies, the studio system is almost solely designed to favor multiplexes. The studios require the majority of your ticket money to go to them, they have a huge say in what you can and can’t show and they dictate the minimum length of a run. A hardtop multiplex can screen a first-run movie a handful of times a day, starting on a main screen and then drop it back to a smaller screen in later weeks, thus rotating the movies to meet the studios’ contractual terms. With a single screen and only able to show one screening at night, we can’t do that.
For example, last year we had every intention of showing Toy Story 4 in a second-run window, i.e. starting two weeks after its release. However, Pixar/Disney required that we show it for a minimum of three weeks. That represented over a quarter of our summer season. Yes, we would grossed quite a bit of money on behalf of Disney for the first weekend, but we would have been stuck with the crumbs for the next two weekends in the height of summer. Additionally, we would have been running afoul of our own ‘Finding Dory – Rocky Horror Picture Show Paradox’.
We discovered this paradox in our second season as accidental drive-in operators. We had been told by other drive-in owners and by every human with a pulse and an opinion that we HAD to show big budget, family-friendly animated fare. That is where the money is and it is the only way to run a sustainable operation. So we showed Finding Dory in 2016 as near to first-run as we were allowed, i.e. two weeks after it was released. To date, it is still our largest draw. The weekend after Finding Dory we screened Rocky Horror Picture Show to about half the number of people. Dory obviously out-grossed RHPS, but do you want to guess which movie had the better net return? Yep. The forty-year old cross-dressing musical did better for us on the bottom line than Finding Dory. How is this possible? Here’s how. Disney took most of the gate. RHPS did not. Many of the families who came for Dory brought their own food and then left the trash in our dumpsters. The folks who came for RHPS came to spend money in concessions, at the bar and bought prop bags. We had half the number of staff for RHPS and far lower trash removal costs. We grossed less on RHPS, but we had far fewer costs and so our net was better. So I ask you ‘should we work harder for less money or should we work smarter for more money?’ Exactly.
In the eight years prior to the start of our tenure, the drive-in was leased to three different operators. They all attempted to run first-run movies. They all failed.
Besides being hampered by the single screen there is an additional reason for their failure: our unique market geography. The Greenville Drive-In is located in arguably the most drive-in theatre dense part of the world. By my count, we have about eleven drive-in movie theatres within a 65-mile radius of Greenville. There exists a popular four-screen multiplex drive-in within twenty miles of us. If we were showing the same first-run fare as everyone else, the only population who would support us would be the immediate population who are closer to us than to them. Sadly, in our small, rural community that represents only a few thousand scattered people. In order to be sustainable, we had to come up with a model capable of drawing from a much bigger pool of people and then convince them to drive to us.
The third reason is more subjective and personal. I find most modern, mainstream CGI-reliant ‘tent pole’ movies tedious and disposable. That’s not to say there aren’t great movies being made presently. There are. Unfortunately, these movies aren’t the ones getting studio support. Where possible, we do try and run solid, contemporary movies, but our interest in screening the same movies being shown by every other theatre is negligible and it makes no business sense.
The ‘not-so-secret’ secret of the Greenville Drive-In is Leigh and I program the movies we personally want to see. Here’s the thing. If you don’t love what you are selling, you should not be selling it. I don’t care if you are selling movies, popcorn, tires, plumbing supplies, microwaves or your accounting services – if you don’t love what you are selling and if you don’t stand behind your product, then you shouldn’t be selling it. End of story.
I couldn’t honestly look you in the eye and be excited about Avengers 37 or Fast & the Furious 18. But I will talk to you for an hour at the bar about how Groundhog Day is one of the greatest American movies ever made.
Our approach is this:
We love the movies we show at the Greenville Drive-In. We love the locally-made concessions we sell and our neighbors who make them. We love our musicians and their original work. We love the amazing young adults who work with us. Put all of this together and we love the complete package we have created at the Greenville Drive-In. It is not so much that we are ‘selling’ a movie as we are inviting our community and our guests to share in the things that we love.
As we describe it, we throw a ‘movie party’ every night. If we were simply screening a movie you could see at home and asking you to drive forty-five minutes to see that movie, that would be a big ask. We get that. Instead, we make it a nightly celebration by pairing great movies with music, cocktails, snacks, funny short subjects, oddball giveaways and promotions. In short, we do our best to make it a complete, affordable night out on the grass and under the stars. If you’ve ever thrown a party, you know how much work is involved. Imagine doing that two to five times a week for five months. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it.
A party, however, is only as good as its guests. As I mentioned earlier, every drive-in is a reflection of its community. We are located on the northern edge of the Catskill Mountains. For generations, the Catskills have always been populated and visited by people who don’t fit in anywhere else. We see this every night at the drive-in. None of our guests fit neatly into a pre-fabricated box. I am always delighted and surprised by the breadth of human experiences our guests bring with them. No two nights are ever the same. It makes sense that a venue serving this community shouldn’t fit neatly in a box either. Leigh and I are proud to be part of this curious community and serve it in our own unique way. Here under the stars of the Northern Catskills, we can all be ourselves.
Our unusual model is working. Until COVID-19, we had seen double-digit growth every season since we revived the Greenville Drive-In and we’ve reached not only sustainability for ourselves, but by focusing on working with local businesses and artists we are proud to see our efforts helping our neighbors as well. There is no question that 2020 is going to be a rough year financially. However, it will not erode the strong foundations of the operation we have developed.
March 2015, before revival.
Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t thank Leigh or myself for reviving the Greenville Drive-In. It is truly an honor and a blessing to own and operate a beloved community institution. There is no greater occupation on earth than one that brings people joy and simultaneously creates and preserves the shared memories of a community. But to be honest, it is not about us. We are just the latest stewards of the Greenville Drive-In since it was established sixty-one years ago. When we came along in 2015, the drive-in was Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree. It wasn’t the same, shiny, mass-produced aluminum tree that everybody else was taking home. All it needed was a little bit of love, and when that happened, the humble tree brought together friends and neighbors to celebrate not only the tree, but the joy of being together as a community.
Without this community – our community – the Greenville Drive-In is nothing more than a giant screen in a grassy field. Both spiritually and financially, our model is built on community. There’s not a lot of sense in us simply screening movies if our guests can’t get out of their cars and be together. In this regard, we may be slower to re-open than other drive-ins. However, it is also the strength of this community model that will keep the Greenville Drive-In a vibrant business for years to come. It has endured for sixty-one years through the good times and the not-so-good. On behalf of Leigh and myself, thank you for your continued support. We look forward to seeing you back here when the time is right.
Until then, stay safe.
Dwight & Leigh