The 2011 season ended with a bang on Labor Day with the dawn and the end of our annual Dusk-To-Dawn show. Normally I stay open a couple of weekends into September, but this year I decided to close early for a number of reasons. Business after Labor Day always drops off a cliff and as I reviewed the last several years, I could see that this situation was getting worse. In my judgment, it simply wasn’t worth it, financially or otherwise, to stay open into the Fall. Every year I get emails wondering why I don’t stay open when the Fall weather is so nice. And my response is that the weather has nothing to do with it; it’s the number of people who come out that (mostly) guide my business decisions. I’d be open in the middle of winter if people came out to my Drive In. I did get an interesting (?) email from a woman who told me that she was planning on coming out to my theatre on a Saturday in late September, that was the only time she could fit it in her schedule, and because I was closing so early: “you just lost my business”. Oh well, you can’t please everyone.
Another factor to my early closing decision was that there was a considerable amount of deferred maintenance work that I wanted to get accomplished before the snows fly. During the season, just running this theatre and taking care of emergencies is a full time, 7-day-a-week, 10-hour-a-day job. Maintenance and upgrade work must be performed in the off-season. So, for example, I’m currently in the process of refurbishing the deck on the back of the bar, repairing and/or replacing damaged/nonworking speaker poles and ramp signs, getting on top of my landscaping, brewing beers to lager over the winter in preparation for the 2012 season, cleaning and repairing my speakers, upgrading my security camera system, experimenting and working on my digital projection system (note; I’m looking to experiment with some alternate programming next year), repairing broken sections of my fence, and other items to keep making this the Drive In Theatre I want it to be.
And finally, this has been an unusually trying year and I just wanted it to end and start up anew next Spring. The conversion to digital was not without its problems, especially in the first half of the season. I lost an entire weekend in the Spring due to equipment failure, had problems with the hard drives in my server (causing weird freezes on the screen), and suffered a premature lamphouse failure one weekend night. Most customers were nice and understanding about this, but I did receive some verbal and written abuse from a not-so-silent minority. And whereas I understand this is just part of running any business that deals with the public, sometimes my patience just starts to run out. Adding to that was the added financial burden of converting to digital being paired with one of the worst business years I’ve ever had here (not just me, many other Drive In owners I know also had a bad year). Weather in 2011 was the perfect storm for Drive Ins: cold and rainy every weekend in the Spring through June followed by one of the hottest, most humid Julys on record. A freak hailstorm that caused $1,700 worth of damage to my road and marquee signs was just icing on the cake. I also think that the weak economy greatly affected attendance this season: people didn’t stop going out to the movies, but I don’t think they went out as often as before (just my anecdotal impression).
But we’re not dead yet. I’m optimistic about the future of the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre and am looking forward to next Spring. My startup expenses of converting to digital are largely behind me; as I’ve gained more experience in operating and maintaining this new digital/black magic technology (I’ll also be attending the factory, advanced service technician’s course this winter which should help), equipment failures (and associated lost shows and revenue) should greatly decline; I’m an experienced businessman so I know how to size my business expenses to meet lower ticket sales from possible continued bad weather, weak economy, and/or lousy product out of Hollywood; as more Drive Ins go out of business because they can’t afford the switch to digital, the remaining, surviving outdoor venues will become even more of a premier market niche; alternate programming may offer additional sources of revenue, especially in the movie-dead months of August and September (I’m working with Wisconsin Public TV on something for 2013, stay tuned); and I’m contemplating turning the greatest irritant in running a small business (dealing with those who have no respect for your business and property) into a positive by filming people caught violating our business policies and pitching the most entertaining confrontations as a reality TV show. I say this last only half-jokingly and you may laugh, but I got the idea for this by watching a cable TV station that had a reality show about some enterprising Kentucky backwoodsmen who were charging 20-something city yuppies big bucks to lead them into a lake where they could experience the thrill of having their feet and lower legs gummed and partially swallowed by giant catfish. Having seen this, I don’t think my Drive In reality show is so outlandish.
So in summary, despite some setbacks and difficult times this year, we’re still solvent, we’re still a going operation, I’ve got the support of my wife and many good customers, and I’m still having fun running this place. As Arnold Swartzennegger famously said in “The Terminator”: I’ll be back.