Even in the age of the multiplex, hundreds of entrepreneurs still make their living hosting outdoor movie nights. Rick Cohen, whose family has owned the Transit Drive-In since the 1950s, reflects on his own little slice of Americana, what it takes to succeed in a shrinking industry, and how he plans to keep thrilling moviegoers for another 30 years.
Most average moviegoers may identify drive-in theaters as relics of a bygone era, akin to the poodle skirt, the jukebox, and the soda jerk. But while the industry, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is a mere shadow of its golden era in the late 1950s -- when nearly 5,000 drive-ins existed throughout the United States, providing family entertainment and a convenient place for teenagers to engage in a little hanky-panky -- close to 400 outdoor theaters are still in operation today.
While many of the existing drive-ins maintain a loyal patronage, theater owners are coping with the challenge of high real estate prices, moody weather forecasts, and often limited operating seasons.
So what is it like to be an entrepreneur in an ever-shrinking industry? Inc.com recently caught up with Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In near Buffalo, N.Y., whose family first bought the theater in 1957. Today the Transit boasts four screens, and frequently welcomes more than 1,000 cars for weekend showings.
Your family has owned the Transit Drive-In for more than 50 years. Can you recall some early memories that initially sparked your interest in the business?
I remember growing up and hanging out with my dad in the afternoons when he was doing repairs, and I helped him or just watched him. I remember going pole to pole to make sure that the speakers worked. The ones that didn't work would go on the ground, and the ones that did would stay on the pole. And then someone else would come along and repair them.
What's a typical attendance like during a Friday or a Saturday?
It varies according to the weather. Weather is a very large factor with the drive-in business. But if the weather is good and the movies are hot, then we'll have over 1,000 cars. We can fit a total of about 1,100.
With this past summer's blockbusters, like The Dark Knight, so popular, did you experience a surge in visitors?
The Dark Knight was very popular, but we had a lot of rain this summer. When the weather is good, the attendance has been great, but we had three Saturdays in a row when it rained, so it was very disappointing. You never want to see rain in the forecast for a Saturday. There is no getting around it. People have disposable time on the weekend and if it rains, they go somewhere else. They do something else with their time, and that income doesn't come back. It's gone forever.
Besides a mini-golf course, what special features do you have at your drive-in that make it stand out?
We have Wi-Fi, so you can bring your laptop to the drive-in and surf the Internet during the movie.
Those unfamiliar with the drive-in experience tend to associate these theaters with scenes they've seen in old movies. Some may still think that the film's sound comes from wired speakers attached to car windows. Could you tell me about some technological advances in the industry?
There are always technological advancements going on. In the last 20 years, the influence of FM broadcasting for the movie sound has probably been the biggest. Theaters can also have a brighter outdoor picture and a sharper image. It's important to keep up with the home theater, because people want a pristine movie experience. You can have CD-quality sound and an HD-quality picture on the drive-in screen, but it's just a matter of spending the money. We do some upgrades every five to 10 years, and the next one will probably be digital projection. It's still a developing technology, but it's definitely on the horizon for us.
Are people still aware of how to behave at a drive-in? In which situations do you most often have to step in and remind your patrons of viewer etiquette?
A lot of times people with larger vehicles think they can park anywhere. We try to arrange parking areas so that people don't end up plopping their gigantic SUV in front of someone who's sitting outside of their car in a lawn chair. We have to remind people from time to time not to interfere with other people's experience. It's a part of the job.
What kinds of preparations go into a typical night at the drive-in?
We start preparing for the weekend as early as the previous Sunday, going through current inventory so we can get our orders in for Monday and restock some of our items. On Monday, we start going over what movies we want to show the following weekend, if we want to make any program changes. There are new movies coming in and old movies going out, so we decide how we want to pair them. While other people do their fun stuff on Saturdays and Sundays, Tuesday and Wednesday are my time off, when I can relax and kick back. And Thursday is all about getting ready for the weekend. We get fresh rolls and buns for the hamburgers and hot dogs, and check the weather forecast, so we can adjust your inventory and staff scheduling accordingly.
A typical drive-in theater season only runs from April through October. What do you do during your months off?
I do a little home remodeling. I'm actually running out of rooms in my house to remodel. I also do some traveling, like visit my brother in San Francisco for Thanksgiving, and go to business conferences and conventions [there is a drive-in convention in Florida, as well as two movie theater owners' conventions in October and March]. I work really hard and long hours in the summer, so in the wintertime I actually get a little free time. I catch up on my soap operas [laughs)].
Drive-ins are often slapped with the term "dying industry." Is your business struggling, or are you doing just fine?
The overall trend has been up over the past 10 years, but this year we had really bad weather, so our business has been down about 5 percent. When you open a drive-in theater, the two most important factors are out of your control: It's about how good the movies are, and how the weather is. I can do everything else right, but if the weather stinks and the movie stinks, business is going to stink.
Since the early 1980s, the number of drive-in theaters in the nation has diminished dramatically. In the past 10 years alone, it has dropped from 580 to 380. What do you think is responsible for this decline?
It's not because people don't support the drive-in. People never stopped going. The main reason is that it's a seasonal business. We were built on the outskirts of cities, on cheap farmlands in the '50s and '60s. In the mid- to late-'70s, the suburbs began to grow out and farmlands turned into prime commercial real estate. And you just can't justify running a drive-in theater on prime commercial real estate. You have to earn income year-round. Most [retail businesses] can get 10 to 15 hours a day, when a drive-in in the northeast can only earn income a few hours in a day -- 8 p.m. to midnight. It's not what you call best use for the value of the real estate.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm only 40 years old. I hopefully have another 20 or 30 years of my career to go. And it's going to be challenging to maintain the experience. The demand for this entertainment is still there, there's no question about it. When the weather is good, we are overwhelmed. We are turning people away. I often wish we had double the parking capacity that we currently have.