drive-in theaters Tag

The State of the Sunset, Pt. 2

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 Daya 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  Noadults 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 rightthat’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-inand we do open the concession stand weeks before we start showing moviespeople just want to get out of the house again. And it’s kind of an unconscious associationit just goes hand in hand: We see the drive-in’s openO, 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 movieso, 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 meI’m not saying anything against it. I’m just saying sometimes an independentalbeit us or a different placepeople 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 biggerbut 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 thateven if it meant profit. They had morals; they had standards. My in-lawsI 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.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Future of Home Theater: A Manifesto

There’s been a lively exchange in these pages lately about the rise of high-end media rooms and what impact that could have on dedicated home theaters. So I wanted to take a moment to explain this site’s position in this debatenot as an effort to guide, let alone stifle, the discussion but to encourage an even more vigorous debate.

 

There’s a tsunami forming that could have as much impact as the iPod on how people experience entertainmentand we’re not just talking home entertainment here but all forms of entertainment everywhere. And it’s being formed by the largely chance convergence of the widespread acceptance of 4K, increased awareness of beyond-5.1-channel surround sound formats like Atmos, the surging popularity of streaming (fueled in part by the marked decline in quality of Hollywood films), and, maybe more important than any of these, increased bandwidth and its wider distribution.

 

But there’s another big factormaybe the biggest: Gender. Tech used to be an almost exclusively male domain. Those days are gone forever. Everybody not only uses but feels comfortable with smartphones, tablets, and myriad other forms of extremely sophisticated lifestyle tech. And hardly anybody looks under the hood anymoredigital makes that almost irrelevant.

 

But it’s not just a girl/guy thing. Anybody old enough to grasp the concept of a reboot realizes the potential of both contemporary and future tech, and feels comfortable swimming in that stream.

 

That means they want their tech to be a natural, and preferably effortless, extension of how they live their lives. That means the days of the man cavewith its connotations of a forbidding space, unusable by anybody but its overlord—are numbered.

 

But that does not portend the demise of home theater, whose best days probably lie ahead.

the future of home theater

The contemporary dynamic goes something like this: Almost everybody has a media-room system, even if it’s as rudimentary as an Internet-enabled TV. Incredibly sophisticated tech like 4K HDR and Atmos is becoming more and more affordable, and thus more and more pervasive.

 

Almost everybody wants the best home-entertainment experience their budgets can handle—and for an increasing number of people, that means being able to cobble together a system that can rival what they find at the local multiplex. But they also want to integrate that high-end entertainment experience into the flow of their day-to-day family life.

 

Thus the rapid rise of the media room.

 

But almost everybody knows a media room isn’t the ultimate at-home experience. And it’s part of the American DNA to keep pushing for something better (although that part of our heritage has taken a hell of a beating lately).

 

Bottom line: A dedicated theater room will always be the ultimate home-entertainment experience, and no media room will ever be able to make that claim.

 

But, to survive, home theaters can’t continue to be shrines devoted exclusively to moviewatching. (Like the male domination of tech, those days are gone too.) They also have to be the ultimate gaming experience—and live-concert experience and streaming experience, and ultimate form of whatever entertainment any member of the family can find to throw at it.

 

In other words, home theaters have to shed their reputation as tomb-like retreats dominated by all kinds of intimidating technology and learn to embrace all forms of entertainment, and every member of the family.

 

There is no doubt the herd is being culled, quickly, efficiently, and without remorse. Multiplexes and other inferior venues and forms of playback probably don’t stand a chance. But four things will likely survive: Media rooms, event theaters, drive-ins, and home theaters. Why? Because each, in its way, makes the experience of entertainment something special.

 

But of these four, only a dedicated home theater can offer the ultimate experience, because only a dedicated home theater allows you to hold all the distractions of day-to-day life at bay, allowing you to focus all your attention on the optimally reproduced and calibrated picture and sound. Even the most tweaked-out state-of-the-art event theaters can’t match that.

 

And theater rooms will always have the edge over media rooms because everybody yearns to enjoy the best entertainment in the best possible way. And the only thing that can consistently deliver that experience is a home theater.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The State of the Sunset, Pt. 1

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.

 

Anything else?

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?

Mario  Kids.

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.

Mario  Annabelle?

Denise  No, not Annabelle—that’s not a kids movie.

Mario  Leap.

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.

drive-in movie theaters

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?

Michael Gaughn

 

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
now this.

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.

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