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.