Walking Up the East Coast to Save Drive-Ins

Rick Cohen grew up at drive-in theaters.

His grandparents owned three of them by the time he was a child, and when he was in high school he started working at one owned by his father. After graduating high school in the late 1980s, he started managing one in the Buffalo, NY, area, and today he’s the owner and operator of the Transit Drive-In, a four-screen complex that welcomes long lines of patrons every weekend in the summer.

“It’s something I grew up with,” he says. “I didn’t realize my family owned it, I just knew we spent a lot of time there.”

There’s something magical about drive-ins: the whole family going out together, kids playing on the playground before the movie starts, then snuggling together in pajamas and blankets and, later, venturing to the concession stand between the first and second feature to get snacks while dancing ice cream sandwiches and beverages fill the screen.

But times have changed and entertainment has evolved, and now there are an estimated 330 drive-ins left in the United States, Cohen says. As recently as 1980, there were more than 2,400.

Initially, the reduction was driven largely by the rising cost of real estate in areas that gradually became suburbs. That’s not the case in many locations now, as most drive-ins are in rural communities, surrounded by little development and, in some cases, farm land.

There are numerous other factors contributing to this decline, namely a mandated change from 35 millimeter films to digital systems. Switching from film to digital projection costs up to $75,000 per screen.

It’s an expensive switch to make, Cohen says, on top of falling profits. Those who decide to make a go of it often find themselves in financial risk, taking on loans and mortgaging their homes to keep their drive-ins open. Most theater owners have other jobs to support themselves and their families and keep the drive-ins open because they love the tradition.

Still, Cohen says he wouldn’t be surprised if 30 or 40 theaters close this year in light of these rising costs.

He gets it.

“I can’t blame them,” he says of those owners who aren’t going to be operating this summer. “The movie business is evolving. It’s unfortunate that these theaters have a limited season, maybe four months of business every year, and even then it’s really only busy on weekends.”

Cohen found a way to drum up some extra business last fall, opening his theater’s parking lots for a handful of Buffalo Bills games, starting with a “home” game that was played in Detroit following a massive snowstorm. It was such a success, he hosted a few additional games later in the season, with proceeds from concession sales donated to charitable organizations in Western New York. Over the summer, the Transit Drive-In also featured a series of Robin Williams double features, with all ticket sales for those movies going to mental health organizations in Buffalo.

With a full appreciation of how fortunate he is to have a bustling business in the summer months, Cohen wants to give back to his fellow theater owners.

Starting this Saturday, Feb. 7, after attending the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association Convention in Kissimmee, Fla., he’ll be walking 1,034 miles along US Route 1, up to Camden, NJ. His end point will be the site of the first drive-in theater in the US, which opened on June 6, 1933. He’ll be hiking along the way, staying in campgrounds (or hotels, if the weather gets bad), and he’s hoping for some company from fellow theater owners and friends along the way.

This isn’t just a way to get some exercise and make good on his New Year’s Resolution, he laughs. He’s hoping to raise $60,000 via an online campaign to save the AutoVue Drive-In in Sidney, Ohio, a theater running each summer since 1956 that might not last many more seasons unless it converts to digital projection.

In just over 24 hours, his GoFundMe account had raised $1,335 from 39 donors. Cohen went public with his campaign Wednesday morning but has been thinking about the effort since the holidays, he says. He’s had business cards printed up, in addition to establishing a website, www.driveinrescue.com, and setting up affiliated Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts with the same name. He’ll be posting photos and updates during the journey, which he expects will take roughly six weeks.

Ideally, he intends to walk between 20 and 27 miles each day, starting at 6 a.m. and taking a few hour-long breaks throughout the day.

“A lot of owners are devastated by the state they’re in,” Cohen says. “There’s a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.”

Imagining a world without drive-ins is hard for people like Cohen. There’s something special about seeing a movie in that way that just can’t be replicated with outdoor shows projected onto the side of a building.

In the interest of full disclosure, I grew up going to the drive-in Cohen owns, but I didn’t know his name until seeing a tweet Wednesday morning linked to his fundraising page. It wasn’t the only drive-in my family frequented: there was another one, also still in operation, about 20 minutes away, and we had no idea there were towns or entire states without drive-ins nearby.

Cohen knows he might not attain his lofty goal, but he’s optimistic. “I feel like the country needs drive-in theaters. It’s part of who we are. It’s important to me to help other drive-in owners so they can stay open. I didn’t know any other way to do this than walking a thousand miles.”

Raising $60,000 “would mean everything to me,” he says. He’d love to help more than one drive-in see another summer, if possible, but he’s starting with the AutoVue, and he’ll be taking it one step, and one drive-in, at a time.

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