The Sunset Drive-in is wrapping up its season, getting ready to hunker down for another Buffalo winter. This was one of the worst summers in the drive-in’s 67 years, with a double-whammy of bad weather and bad movies driving box office down 25%.
But their numbers have bounced back a little since we last checked in with them, thanks partly to the distributors’ unprecedented decision to shower the Sunset with a steady stream of first-run movies well past Labor Day—a move born not of beneficence but from a desperate need to shore up their own dismal summer receipts.
That burst of first-runs and an unexpected stretch of warm, dry weather that lingered well into fall kept 2017 from being a disaster. But Sunset owners Mario and Denise Stornelli have seen enough bad years during their second-generation tenure at the helm to know that next year could go either way, and that it all, somehow, turns out OK in the end.
What are your admission prices?
Mario It’s 9 dollars for each adult, and then 11 to four is 4 dollars. And 11 and under is—
Denise No—adults are 9 dollars. Five to 11 are 4. And four and under are free.
In New York City, you can easily pay $14 dollars a person to see a first-run movie. IMAX and 3D movies can be around $25.
Denise Holy Christmas!
Mario That’s what’s so nice about us having a double feature for the same admission. You know, if you don’t like the first movie, there’s a second one just at the end of the first one.
But it’s not just the prices that reflect that you’re in a very small town. People are far more attuned to what goes on at the Sunset than they would be to any movie theater in a city or at a mall.
Denise You know, you’re absolutely right—that’s what happens. In this area, because you’ve been through winter in a colder section of the country, when spring breaks and people start seeing movies on the marquee at the drive-in—and we do open the concession stand weeks before we start showing movies—people just want to get out of the house again. And it’s kind of an unconscious association—it just goes hand in hand: We see the drive-in’s open—O, spring’s here!
If you go to a mall or city theater, you’re just there to see the movie, but going to a drive-in is a whole experience.
Denise It’s a tradition.
For instance, your snack bar isn’t just for popcorn and soda.
Denise Well, we do get a lot of feedback about that. A lot of people joke that they come for the food and then just hang around for the movie—so, yeah, I think the food matters.
Mario We always get good compliments.
Denise But we don’t dictate that people have to patronize the snack bar. If they want to bring in their own food or whatever, we don’t police that. You know, the drive-in’s for family, and we do OK. We don’t let them to bring in grills and set up stuff like that, but otherwise it’s OK. So I think people do appreciate it.
And there aren’t a lot of options for places to eat in a small town.
Denise I think that’s one thing that’s kind of appreciated more now, because you’ve got so many things that are franchised, and that’s more like assembly-line food. And don’t misunderstand me—I’m not saying anything against it. I’m just saying sometimes an independent—albeit us or a different place—people like the homestyle, you know what I mean?
It’s unusual to have the owner of a business cooking every piece of food that comes off the grill.
Mario I don’t know what it’s like to have somebody cooking it for me.
So what made you decide to offer a full-blown menu?
Mario Actually, back in the ‘60s, my mother used to work for her uncle in the wintertime, cooking at his diner. So my dad asked her, “You want something to do in the winter? We’ll get a restaurant going here.”
Denise Instead of working for somebody else, work for yourself. We’ll just make the drive-in into a restaurant.
Mario And that’s what we did. So we started breakfast. And we used to be open all night. And then the menus kept on getting bigger and bigger—but this is as big as it’s going to get. And everything is made fresh, you know what I mean? There’s nothing packaged ahead of time.
What was the worst period for the Sunset? A lot of drive-ins resorted to showing porn during the ‘70s.
Denise Well, my mother-in-law would never have shown those.
Mario I mean, we used to play Disneys all the time.
Denise His mom and dad were definitely of the generation that would never have gone for that—even if it meant profit. They had morals; they had standards. My in-laws—I know them. They would have shut down if that would have been the only thing available to them. We’re in a small town. You know your neighbors here. You know what I mean? You know the community. And that would have reflected on them, and they wouldn’t have done that.
I know converting to digital was rough for you because it was such a huge expense.
Mario & Denise We had no choice.
Denise We wanted to do one screen at a time. But then the distributors told us, “Well, if you do that, by the end of the year, you may not have a product.” Well, no product, no business.
Mario But it’s worked out OK for us.
Denise In the spring, we’ll have the five-year commitment done.
Mario And we’ll celebrate in April.
Denise But the initial purchasing of the projectors—I never want to have to do that ever again. Ever. It was horrible. And until they’re paid for, that noose is around your neck.
It’s undeniable that people are beginning to have a big preference for staying home to watch movies instead of going out. How do you think you’ll fare?
Denise I can’t put an opinion on it because I’m not that well versed on it. But I’m hoping the public will still want to come out and watch movies in this atmosphere and landscape because we’re a lot different than going to a theater. Coming here is actually more like watching movies at home.
Is there anything else you wanted to say about how business has been this year, or what you’re looking forward to next year, what has to happen differently as far as the movies?
Denise No, because we really don’t get a choice.
Mario It’s just, if the movies are good and the weather’s good, we’ll be OK. You know what I mean? It always straightens out, in other words.