Middleport, NY is one mile by one mile square. It has, generously, 1,800 residents. It’s a Rust Belt town with a pension-based economy. There haven’t been decent jobs on any meaningful level here since the early Reagan years.
And yet it has one of the few remaining fully functional drive-in theaters in the U.S. The Sunset has been in continuous operation for almost 67 years. Far more affluent parts of the country haven’t been able to make drive-ins work, partly because they need large swaths of land that tend to get gobbled up by big-box stores, McMansions, and condos. The land around Middleport isn’t worth much, so the drive-in survives.
But its survival has a lot more to do with the focus and tenacity of its owners, Denise and Mario Stornelli, than it does with piddling real-estate values. This year threw them a couple of big curves, though. It rained almost every day during the prime of summer—and not just passing showers but steady downpours and violent storms, which used to be unusual in this part of the country but are becoming more and more common.
And the box office sucked—not just at the Sunset but everywhere in the U.S., where it was down 16% overall.
I talked to Mario and Denise about how they fared.
How has your box office been?
Mario It’s down a little bit. About a quarter.
Denise At least 25, 30 percent.
Was that due to the weather or the quality of the movies?
Mario & Denise Both. (Mario laughs)
Mario Weather less than movies.
Denise Because if the weather’s bad but you’ve got a good crowd, it doesn’t matter. The weather’s never been that much against a good product.
Has anybody said anything about the quality of the movies?
Denise The clientele, they’ll talk to us about weather and the movies, because they’re avid goers. And they themselves knew there was really no big blockbuster out this year—nothing—no one picture you could put your finger on.
Were there any standouts?
Denise Wonder Woman did better than they anticipated.
Denise There was War for the Planet of the Apes, but I don’t remember that doing that well. But we just had it a lot. This has probably been one of the worst Labor Day weekends we’ve ever seen. The weather was good, so it wasn’t the weather, but the movie choices were really not good—not at all.
What kinds of movies do you think do best? Who do you have to appeal to?
Denise Kids movies—kids rule.
Mario Then we get both the parents and the kids.
Denise Yeah, the kids want to come, the parents have to bring them. They make it, sometimes, a family affair. A woman approached Mario and I. It was her little girl’s 3rd birthday. And they made a whole Sunday out of it.
Mario They put up a tent.
Denise They paid for the people who they had invited to come for the movie, because it was her daughter’s favorite movie.
Denise No, not Annabelle—that’s not a kids movie.
Denise Was it Leap? But I don’t know what that was about. They invited the family, they set up a tent, they had it all decorated with balloons and bought a cake. It was a really nice thing to see.
I see you’ve got the new Lego movie. That should do well.
Denise I saw that today, and it’s really cute.
Mario It’s unusual for them to give us first-run this time of year. I was surprised they gave me two new ones this week. And we’ve done OK with them—it’s helped us out, you know.
The distributors are probably loosening up because they have to make up for the lousy summer.
Denise Normally when school starts, they start recycling over and over the ones we’ve already had. And when you’ve got people that patronize you regularly—I mean, they can only come and see the same movies—
Mario This is a small town. And all the towns around this are small, so we want to change the movies frequently. When we only had the one screen, it was hard to play movies and hold them too long, because then you lose your steady customers. But with three screens, at least it gives you a change.
Denise You know, Mike, you got to remember two things. The business has been here 67 years, the same family. Second generation. But it’s a business that depends on variables we have no control over. You’re against weather, and you’re against product. The thing you have to remember is, it’s not new. You have good years, you have bad years. And you just take what comes. You don’t want to make a big gripe about a bad year. It’s a bad year. But we’ve had good years. And that’s the other point. You know what? You look at the news, and you look at other areas of the country—it could always be worse.
There’s probably no one secret to it, but how have you managed to stay in business when thousands of other drive-ins have failed?
Denise I can tell you the reason. (she gestures toward Mario) It’s ’cause of him. It’s a lot of sacrifice, and you’ve gotta have self-discipline.
Mario She’s just being nice.
Denise No, no—really, Mike—if it wasn’t for Mario. When you’re working 7 days a week, in the best season in this area, and you’ve been here every single year—you’re giving up a lot of family time, and there’s a lot of sacrifice that you make—honestly. Because if this business is open, we’re here. We need no one else to run it. You can lose too much. It takes a lot of self-discipline. And if it wasn’t for him—I’ve gotta tell ya—the best of any of the rest of us would have buckled. Because even my son, who might be the next one—it’s not so much the sacrifice for Chris, but he doesn’t know if he can be what his father is.
Because, honestly, it’s really hard. A lot of vacations and celebrations are this time of year—you don’t go. I mean, my kids graduated, I went—I came right back to work. It was on a Saturday. It’s just the way it is. The flip of that is, nowadays, it makes a good living, OK? It really does. And to have a job that does that, and seems appreciated, nowadays—then you just are grateful for what you’ve got, and you do what you’ve gotta do, right?
In Pt. 2, we speculate on whether the drive-in experience can survive the
steep decline in theater attendance & the rise of streaming
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
Mario Makes a Sub
Sunset Drive-in owner Mario Stornelli has prepared
every piece of food that’s come off the snack-bar
grill for over 40 years. In this short video, he talks
about some of his experiences while whipping up his
signature cheese burg sub.