North Park Theatre, Transit Drive-In adapting to keep movies alive in WNY
What will the theater-going experience look like in a post-pandemic United States? Movie lovers across the country still don’t know. And as is the case in many locales, local screen owners in Western New York are continuing to adapt week to week.
‘Your movie theater experience is going extinct’ and ‘Hollywood is preparing to sacrifice movie theaters’ are the types of national headlines cinema lovers are reading this holiday season. While indoor movie theaters have been closed for the majority of 2020, many have turned to an outdoor experience.
“Typically the drive-in is closed for the season. We're done by mid-November, and this year, we made it through the end of November and we're actually going into the first week of December,” said Rick Cohen, owner of Transit Drive-In in Niagara County.
In a typical year, his business goes from being open seven days a week, to just Fridays and Saturdays after Labor Day. But the estimate Cohen gave for this story just a few weeks back held true, and then some. His drive-in is still open for the extended season today, and this month has seen sold-out showings of holiday favorites, Elf and Christmas Vacation.
Large family gatherings like the Griswold’s won’t be an option for most Americans this holiday season. Cohen said even while COVID numbers are high, the drive-in allows for a safe, isolated big screen experience.
“If it stays in the 40s and 50s, we’ll likely stay open into January,” he said.
Despite the longer season, getting through the year hasn’t been easy. Though Transit is larger than many other drive-ins, featuring five screens that can fit 650 vehicles, it has been operating at half capacity. And that means concession sales – an essential revenue source for most theaters – are down. Cohen has also moved his ticket sales all online, which has been off-putting to many of his patrons, who are used making a spur-of-the-moment decision to show up.
“The important thing is that we create a safe environment,” he said. “We prefer to be safe rather than busy.”
At the national and international level, questions continue to surround what theater chains like Regal and AMC will do, especially after Warner Brothers announced every single one of its 2021 movies will debut in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service at the same time. For smaller, independent chains and stand-alone theaters, the move to back streaming offers an uncertain future.
But the independent, 100-year-old North Park on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo doesn’t plan on going anywhere, according to program director Ray Barker.
“One of the advantages I think of being smaller is that you have a greater flexibility. And we don't have that massive debt that the big chains do," Barker said.
Chains like AMC have spent more than $600 million in remodeling and adding living room-style reclining chairs over the past five years.
North Park went through its own renovations in 2014, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Barker said the single screen theater and its art deco marquee has endured their fair share of tough times too.
“To have survived 100 years and been able to survive national crises like the Great Depression and World War Two, the ups and downs of the economy, and still be here on Hertel Avenue is really incredible,” Barker said.
There was a brief time this fall when indoor theaters in New York were allowed to open. North Park opened October 23 before closing its doors just a few weeks later.
“We had kind of Halloween family classics, with Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas. And those played very well, we had very good audiences for both films, which made us very happy to see," Barker said. "And then we had kind of two weeks of Tenant, which underperformed as it has kind of underperformed internationally.”
Like other independent theaters across the country, one thing North Park has tried is opening a virtual cinema.
“Essentially what we're doing is we're curating movies, we're selecting movies, and we're putting those up on our website and encouraging people to watch those films through us. They're helping support North Park Theater when they do that, and helping support some very innovative artists who've made some great films out there as well,” he said.
For the coming year, Barker said the North Park plans to host a belated celebration of this year’s 100th anniversary. And Cohen said the Transit Drive-In will look to hold more non-movie events like concerts and graduations. In the meantime, North Park is supplementing its revenue by offering popcorn to go, and Transit is planning a socially-distanced New Year’s Eve celebration with movies and fireworks.
“And it's certainly not easy," Cohen said. "But if you want to operate a business during a pandemic, you have to make these adjustments for health and safety, otherwise, you shouldn't be open.”