Lockport’s Transit Drive-In movie theater has announced plans to expand its operation with a fifth digital projection screen. The impetus and the impact may not be what most expect.
A cloudless blue sky, temperatures in the 70s, and a Saturday night when the latest Disney movie has just come out sounds like an ideal situation for a drive-in theater and, for the most part, it is. Except for the Transit Drive-In, that actually means having to turn customers away.
“We’re going to have hundreds of cars that we won’t be able to accommodate,” explained Transit Drive-In owner Rick Cohen.
Cohen said it isn’t often that the theater can show a blockbuster movie on two screens at once. Transit did it this summer with “Minions” and “Jurassic World,” but it’s not always possible, given contractual obligations to keep other movies on the rest of its four screens.
When a potential customer discovers that the movie they want to see is sold out, deciding whether or not to see something else or drive away takes time. It also leads to crying children and upset customers – some of whom Cohen said curse at his staff and threaten to never return. All that indecision and commotion causes backups in the theater driveway and out on to Transit Road.
Cohen said a fifth screen will help solve this problem, but will actually come in handy only about 10 nights each year. He said the half-million dollar expansion is less about revenue, and more about stress.
“Not only for myself and for my staff, but for the customers, too,” explained Cohen. He said customers are often worried by thoughts of, “‘we’ve got to get there early, it’s going to be sold out, there’s not going to be enough room, we’re going to have to park in the back row.’”
For all the challenges that having four screens provides, it’s also been a leading part of Transit’s success, and a shining example for many drive-ins across the country.
“It helps a lot to have the additional screens to be able to provide a variety,” said Cohen. “Having a family movie on one screen, maybe an action movie on another screen, or a comedy on another screen. Having that diversity is really essential to the success of an entertainment venue.”
While many drive-in theaters across the country continue to keep the American outdoor movie tradition alive, some still struggle to survive. Cohen embarked on a mission in February 2015 called "Drive-In Rescue" to bring awareness to the theaters that still exist by visiting some of them on a walk from Kissimmee, Florida to Camden, New Jersey. He also started a GoFundMe page to help a single-screen family-owned drive-in in Sidney, Ohio make the conversion to digital projection. Neither campaign was a complete success.
Cohen said small towns with small populations often don’t provide the revenue needed to invest in the necessity of new technology. He said Transit has been fortunate to be in a community with a large population that supports it.
The plan to expand the Transit Drive-In has been in the works for about 10 years. It was put on a back burner while Cohen focused on raising the funds to convert his four current projection systems to digital at a cost of $75,000 each.
In spring of 2015 Cohen completed his purchase of the land immediately south of the theater’s current footprint. It sits between the drive-in and an Amish furniture seller, opposite the private North Buffalo Suburban Airport. Cohen will likely need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the construction of the fifth screen, since it is in the airport’s runway protection zone. Cohen said he doesn’t expect the FAA to have an issue with it, since nearby power lines stand nearly as tall as the new screen will.
If given final approval by the Town of Lockport, the fifth screen will add room for up to 225 cars. Theater staff will also begin using hand-held mobile devices to sell tickets to drivers waiting in the admission line.
Cohen estimated that a quick construction process could see the fifth lot cleared and its screen erected by the start of the spring season in March or April. He expects the screen will get its first major use in June 2016 with the release of Disney’s “Finding Nemo” sequel, “Finding Dory”.
From the Transit Drive-In Facebook page:
“In order to better serve our valued patrons, we have made an application to the Town of Lockport Planning Board for a 5th screen to be added to the southeast corner of our property.
The purpose of this expansion is to accommodate overflow crowds during the summer months, mainly from mid-June to mid-August, when demand for parking space on big summer movies exceeds our parking capacity on weekend nights.
For example, last summer, even though we played the family movie 'Minions' on two screens for its first two weeks, we still had to turn families away on both weekends due to the excessive demand. While we currently have four screens available, our ability to double those screens on a popular movie is restricted by contractual obligations to studios which obligates the drive-in to show movies for a minimum number of weeks.
The additional screen would allow us to double and even triple the number of screens for the largest summer blockbusters more often, such as 'Minions' last summer, 'Finding Dory' this summer, or 'Toy Story 4' in 2017.
The biggest concern from the town seems to be the traffic situation. What we have observed, is that the backups mainly occur between 8:30 and 9:30, on nights when one or more screens are selling out, and are mainly caused by the lack of available parking space when our lots are filled up. This causes the flow of traffic into the drive-in to slow down to a crawl, as people who are unable to get into the movie they really want to see, take much more time at the ticket window to decide if they want to buy tickets for a different movie, or come back on another evening. When sellouts usually occur so close to the start times, we are unable to announce them before families are already on their way, or already in line.
What normally would have been a 30 second transaction at the ticket window before a sellout occurs, can take up to several minutes instead, as families need to decide what to do.
The addition of a 5th screen will not add to demand or result in more traffic, since the new screen will mainly be used to play duplicate movie programs already showing on the existing screens, and to provide more parking capacity to meet the preexisting demand for our biggest summer movies. It will also allow our patrons to have more room to spread out and be more comfortable on nights when we are moderately busy, but not sold out due to the extra capacity.
The main difference a 5th screen will make, is that it will allow us to avoid frequent sellout situations, and more easily accommodate our existing demand for big summer movies, while improving our traffic flow in the process by not needing to turn away business as often, or force families to consider a different movie option.
We wish to thank all of our valued patrons for their continued support, as we work to improve the outdoor movie experience for all of Western New York. We hope to see all of you again in a few short weeks when spring arrives!”