Business Policies and the Wrath of Khan Part 1

When you operate any small business, you have to set your prices and business policies such that you can have a reasonable chance to pay the bills, make necessary investments to maintain and improve the business, and maybe earn a reasonable profit.  As a business owner, that is your right and responsibility.  The customer has the right to determine if the product or service provided is worth the price or whether they can abide by your business policies.  The customer is free to choose whether he/she is willing to patronize your business.

 Were it only that simple.  My most controversial business policy, implemented eight years ago and still causing me aggravation (although each year is getting better), was the decision not to allow customers to bring in their own food and drink (and peripherally the zero-tolerance policy of bringing in alcohol).

 First a little background.  Fifty years ago, in the heyday of the outdoor theatre, there were over 4,000 Drive Ins throughout the country.  Drive Ins then were widely popular as a place for families to enjoy cheap entertainment: ticket prices were generally lower than indoor theatres and you could bring in a picnic basket full of goodies (indoor theatres also commonly had double and triple features in those days).  But Drive Ins did not get first run films.  Oh, there were some very large-scale urban theatres, 1,200 to 1,800 car and larger, that got first run, but generally Drive Ins would get mainstream movies months after release.  There was a time when most Drive Ins couldn’t get mainstream movies at all, and a group of film studios arose (American International Pictures for example) that cranked out cheap films just for the Drive Ins.  These were generally cheesy horror films, ridiculous westerns, biker/prison flicks, soft-core porn and the like.  Movies with titles like ‘Attack of the Crab Monsters’, ‘Death Race 2000’, ‘Biker Chicks from Hell’, ‘I Spit on your Grave’, and let’s not forget that all-time Drive In classic: ‘The Cheerleaders’.  These movies were cheap to make and cheap to license.  Drive In owners could often get these films for a low flat rate (e.g. $50 a week) instead of the normal percentage of box office receipts that is the standard to this day.  In those circumstances, owners could make money on the box office; the more cars they could get on the lot, the better.  Concessions were an afterthought.

 Today it’s a different story.  People don’t want to come out to see ‘Biker Chicks from Hell’.  They want to see first run movies when they are first released.  American International Pictures and all of those other studios that catered to Drive Ins are long gone, as are about 90 percent of the Drive Ins.  The few Drive Ins still left have to show first run movies if they want to attract customers and to get those movies they have to pay very stiff licensing fees to the studios.  So, Drive In theatre owners don’t make much margin off of their ticket sales anymore; not enough to stay in business.  Concessions now are the primary means of paying the bills.

Most Drive Ins are gone, reduced from over 4,000 in the 1950’s to less than 400 today and the numbers continue to decline.  This Drive In closed in the mid-1990s and languished as a deteriorating graveyard site for several years.  No one stepped forward to operate it until I bought it in 1999.  It then took me a full year and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it capable of showing movies in 2000.

 This discussion will continue with Part 2.

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6 Responses to Business Policies and the Wrath of Khan Part 1

  1. slothman says:

    This is great info. I remember when the no outside food or drink policy began, and I was a bit taken aback then. But I understood pretty quickly that it was needed, and always tell people to go and buy food from the concession stand when they do.

    Thank you for keeping this Drive In operating!

  2. dalton says:

    Tonight my family was told to leave your theater due to a cooler being in the back of the van. I have read your business policy and understand that outside food and drink are prohibited because of things like the previous owners going in bankruptcy due to lack of concession sales.
    We have visited your theater many times and have always had an enjoyable time. This time we left a cooler in the back of the van and ended up losing over $50 to your theater without seeing the movie. That’s a lot of money to us.
    Your lot manager was less than polite to us, even after we explained we just spent $25 in concession sales, including pops for everyone, all the food containers were present for him to see. The contents of the cooler were not even going to be consumed. When I asked how do you explain this to him, my 4 year old, your lot manager bent over and said “your mommy and daddy broke the law so you have to leave.” My son looked at me and started to cry. The other staff member, who was making rounds with the lot manager actually started to tear up when he saw this, he couldn’t even make eye contact with us. He remarked to my father that “this isn’t right”. We asked to talk to the manager and were told he would give the same explanation. We were then informed we could be escorted out by the police. At this we left without causing a scene.
    All this happened in front of my wife, both my kids and my parents who had just come in from Minnesota to take their son to “a movie under the stars.”
    I understand you can’t allow big paper bags of homemade popcorn in your drive in like we did when we were kids because it hurts your bottom line. That is why we spent $25 in food sales at your concession stand. We miss the Space Invaders game btw.
    While we were packing up and consoling our child, the patrons around us were all saying that what your lot manager did was crappy, power trippy, and some other things I can’t write. As we exited the theater the lot manager made a smirking gesture to his partner and at that his partner shook his head. I think everyone knew this kid was exerting his authority well beyond what was intended.
    This occurred on Fri. July 8th during Cars 2. I agree that people no longer go to drive ins to see Biker Chicks from Hell. That is why we frequent your drive-in. Please don’t let this ruin what our family finds as an enjoyable family date night.
    Please respond as I am interesting in hearing how this will be made right.


    • admin says:

      This individual was caught with alcohol in his cooler. My rampmen politely and calmly informed him of our policy concerning alcohol, even though he had passed by a large sign at the box office that specifically says that anyone bringing alcohol on theatre grounds will be ejected without a refund, no exceptions. And if he’s been to this theatre before, as he claims, then he should be fully aware of our policies and that we fully expect our customers to honor them. When he couldn’t talk my rampmen into making an exception for him, he flew into a rage. He then emailed me his notional version of events along the lines of what you see here. At no time were my rampmen anything other than polite and restrained (hard to do when someone is taunting and yelling at you).

  3. jcs1 says:

    Well, that is a compelling story and as an entrepeneur, I applaud your vision and belief in this new model to fufill the future of cinema. Now let me tell you my story.

    I drove an hour to spend my money at your business with my family and two other families with kids ranging from infant to 8 years old. I was almost immediately confronted by your staff who invaded my personal space, looked into my car and gave me the choice of leave or we’ll confiscate your personal property. When asked what my choices are to solve this situation your staff says we’ll take your money and not give it back or we’ll take that property – judge and jury. Never even took the “contraband” out of the car, Never touched, ate, drank or smelled the “contraband” in question, just was told get out and don’t come back. Suppose I tell this story to everyone I know and it goes viral, how will that effect your business model? Now I guess had cooler heads prevailed we may have said, in the effort to get the money ready and not having researched the stringent policies you have we may have taken our discretionary income and spent it elsewhere or simply been better prepared to avoid the issue. We may have taken the soda we bought but never took into the house last week out ahead of time. Point is we never had the chance. It was give it to me or get out. Great business model there. My guess is it never will really matter exactly what movie is showing if the people you employ want to act like this is Germany 1939 instead of the United States. Never thought I’d ever see somone in this country especially a business get away with “give me your property or money and get out”. Never even saw the movie by the way. No refund – of course that’s all on the signs so that makes it all alright.

    I could change my opinion. You could say wow, I never knew things were this bad. I don’t understand this story but need to. The sheriff advises me this is a civil matter. We’ll see what the Town Board Chariman says about how this represents the friendliness of the Town of Jefferson. But this story does not have an ending yet. Let’s call this our own little “Part 2”. You could – refund my money and say well, we need to manage this better since customers are pretty scarce and I can’t lose even one. You could ingnore it and hope it goes away (it won’t since the county tells me this isn’t the first call they’ve recieved and my guess is it won’t be the last unless changes are made). You could try to implement a system instead of a policy that allows the simple acts like not knowing something as a first time customer to be adequately addressed in a manner that meets the needs of your client and being able to address your needs and ours in a dignified manner. The ball lies in your court. You set the tone. You get to say what should happen with your name on the line. If this is how you want your business to be managed, then so be it. We’ll address that by the legal means necessary to affect change. Seems odd that this heart wrenching impassioned commentary on how much effort it takes to make your passion work would result in more customer “help”. I actually understand your perspective and had I known the rules I would have complied. I did not know and as a reuslt of gross mismangement, I’m questioning why I would ever solicit your business again and why I would not encourage all others to likewise look for other avenues to spend their money as well. I await your reply.

    • Admin says:

      These people drove by several signs leading up to our box office that explicitly stated that we do not allow Carryin food and drink. This policy is also clearly stated on our web site, telephone message, and in our newspaper ads. When my rampman found their carryins, he politely told them they could stay if they donated those items to the Jefferson Food Pantry: where it would then be distributed to people in need. They refused to do this and, after some verbal abuse directed towards my staff, they left. A short time later, deputies from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department showed up telling me these people had called them to complain that, for no reason whatsoever, we had descended upon them, harassed and threatened them, and then threw them out. When I explained to the deputies what really happened, they informed these individuals that I was within my legal rights to enforce my business policies. I should mention that I occasionally get threatened with “legal means” by people like this as an intimidation tactic. Just part of the dark side of running a small business.

  4. WyattKurtz says:

    I love the Hi-way 18 outdoor theater. Everything about seeing a movie at a drive-in is special and different from a common movie theater. Despite the fact that the films are first run now, the thing that makes it special for me is the feeling of nostalgia I attain from attending. With that in mind, I would LOVE to see a few “Biker Chicks from Hell” type movies. I don’t know if they are still attainable in the current format, or if they should warrant a weekend’s time slot, but I would love to experience some of the old drive in classics at a drive in. I’ve always appreciated the Christopher Mihm films you’ve shown and hope you continue that tradition. It’s always a great time and I’m thankful that the opportunity is still out there. I’m thankful that you’ve taken over and are keeping it going.

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