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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Since the formation of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA) we have endeavored to answer all e-mail messages sent to us. However, with the large (and growing) number of e-mail contacts that we receive daily, many regarding the same questions, we are unable to answer every e-mail we receive. Hopefully the following list of frequently asked questions, and their answers, will be of assistance to you.

Table of Contents

  1. Where can I buy drive-in theatre related memorabilia?
  2. How are movies shown on the huge screens at drive-in theatres?
  3. Do drive-in owners make a lot of money from the admission cost?
  4. Where is my closest drive-in located?
  5. I want to be a drive-in owner. What do I need to know?
  6. How do I become a temporary member?
  7. What are the benefits to membership?
  8. What does UDITOA do? What doesn't UDITOA do?
  9. I am doing a project on drive-ins/I am designing a film festival. Can UDITOA help?
  10. Can I become a UDITOA member if I’m interested in drive-in theatres but don’t operate one?

Where can I buy drive-in memorabilia?

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association does not sell memorabilia. However, drive-in theatre related merchandise and memorabilia can be found through on-line auction sites and various web sites that cater to drive-in enthusiasts. MANY of these items are also available directly from our member owner's theatre web sites. Click on MEMBERS at the main page to visit our members sites.

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How are movies shown on the huge screens at drive-in theatres?

Movie theatres, including drive-in theatres, use 35mm film projectors to present films on their screens. Although digital projectors have been developed that allow digital or video signals to be projected, less than 100 out of 37,000 movie screens in the U.S. are equipped with these units at the present. While digital projection may be the standard in the future, most theatrical film releases are still being issued on 35mm film stock.

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Do drive-in owners make a lot of money from the admission cost?

Actually, movie theatres (both outdoor and indoor) make most of their money in the concession stand. An often-high percentage of the monies received for ticket sales must be paid to the film studios as film rent. Therefore, for a theatre to survive, theatre operators must depend on their customers to patronize their snack bars.

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Where is my closest drive-in located?

Please see our Members Page for a list of member drive-ins and their website links. There are numerous websites on the internet which will give you information about a particular state's drive-ins or drive-ins across the country in addition to our member theatres.

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What do I need to know to open a drive-in??

Below is some info regarding start-up of a drive-in that you might find useful. The following info is not meant to dissuade you from opening a drive-in. Nothing would please us more than to add another drive-in to the ranks and to recruit another new owner for UDITOA. However, we do want you to be aware of the realities of the business before you undergo such a project.

Here are some things for you to consider when building/re-opening a drive-in:

  1. Your big expenses will be land, screen(s), ramping and concession building. A screen may be purchased used from a closed drive-in or newly constructed by a professional screen company or by a local engineer. The screen tower is a specialized structure & will require specialized design & construction assistance. For instance, many jurisdictions require that screens meet a certain standard in terms of wind resistance. Issues like this would best be addressed by a professional screen company such as Selby Products in Ohio or an engineer with experience in building/designing drive-in screens. The approximate cost per screen is dependent on size, structure type and many other factors and range in price from $20,000-$90,000 or more.

  2. You will also need to consult with cinema equipment professionals when it comes to setting up your projection booth. They should be consulted very early in the game for advice on where to locate the projection booth & screen (there is a mathematical formula for this) & equipment that will be needed for a drive-in theatre. You can buy used equipment. There are multiple vendors of used equipment and you may want to buy used when possible.  The cost of a NEW splicer alone can be $500. A Used booth set-up will cost approximately $20,000. You will need a projector, lamphouse, xenon bulbs, platter, rewind bench, splicer, FM transmitter, sound processor, etc. Most drive-ins use xenon lamphouses and platter film handling systems, but some still use a two projector "changeover" system. Keep in mind that a drive-in generally requires larger projection lamps due to the long throw to the very large screen & due to the fact that moonlight & other ambient light interferes with the image. You must have good sound & a bright picture. Without these, you will have fewer patrons. You cannot skimp on these factors. Combine good sound, bright picture with a great snack bar & a nice family-friendly environment and you have a better shot at success.

  3. Other expenses/factors for you to consider: You will need approximately 10-14 acres for an approximate 500 car drive-in. If you are building on land that was never previously a drive-in, you will need to build ramps in your field. The excavation work required to build the necessary ramps can be quite expensive. In fact, many people feel that building new ramps can be cost prohibitive. However, we have seen drive-ins build ramps when they add additional screens & are aware of some brand new drive-ins that have installed ramps. Depending upon the lay of the property, ramps may not be necessary, but they generally are needed in order to ensure adequate sight lines to the screen. You also need to be concerned about the zoning of the land & any special laws in your area that may present a challenge when setting up a drive-in theatre. Another important factor: there should not be a lot of ambient light shining into the property from other properties. If there is, you will need to construct high fences, grow tall trees quickly, or develop a cordial relationship with your neighbors to ask them to turn off their lights. Find out what your local laws are concerning signage, handicap access, and any other local issues.  Be sure the number of toilets and sinks is in relation to the theatre capacity.   

  4. Make sure the drive-in will be welcome in the community. Some trying to build or reopen drive-ins have been faced with community opposition. Many people having not attended a drive-in in many years (if ever) rely on the Hollywood stereo-type that they are noisy, rowdy places that are passion pits. As you probably know, in reality most drive-ins are family oriented, safe entertainment venues. It just may require some convincing regarding that fact on your part. Many also think drive-ins create traffic problems. Make sure that you will have adequate space to get many cars off the highway so that there won't be a back up. Some zoning boards require a holding driveway which can hold 1/3 of the theatre's capacity in the driveway. A visit from the police, or even worse, an accident caused by backed up traffic is the last thing you need while trying to operate your theatre.

  5. You will need to check on your potential competition from indoor theatres. If you are nearby an operating drive-in, locate yours in another area. Keep in mind that film companies often favor multiple screen theatres when it comes to permitting them to play first run film product. Their philosophy seems to be that they can make more money on a picture if they release it to a multiple screen indoor theatre that can play it on more than one screen several times a day. Therefore, you would likely fare better if you locate your drive-in where it is not close to big multiple screen theatres, if possible. You will want to build your drive-in with at least 2 screens because you will be able to attract more customers by having multiple pictures when you are required to play the same movie for 4 weeks. You also want to make sure that you have an adequate population base to draw from and that the demographics would support attendance at an outdoor theatre. (Most drive-ins cater to families and their patronage is generally a mix of teenagers, young families, and the elderly.)

  6. Booking of films is best left to professional film bookers, at least when you first enter the business. You will have your hands full doing the other things. It is a tedious task & can often be frustrating. Also- you will need to establish a relationship with the distributors. This is easier initially if you have a booker. The booker books films for multiple theatres. After you get the hang of it, you can eventually book your own films, though many owners find it's worth the cost to use a booker. Film rentals are usually on a percentage of your box office take and can be anywhere from 10-90%- so don't expect to make a lot from your ticket price. Sometimes the studios require that you run seven nights per week, not weekends only- to get first run films.  And even then, they are under no obligation to offer you a particular film.  If you have a lot of indoor competition, they may get the picture before you. If may be better financially not to get a film "on the break" but to wait two or more weeks in order to get the percentage down. All of these factors will depend on your particular situation.) In general, patrons demand new product. Unless you are in a unique situation, showing old or classic movies will not make a lot of money. Most patrons will not come to see a movie that is available on video. Additionally, there are limited resources for acquiring classic movies on a regular basis.

  7. Because you may not always make a lot of money at the box office, you should concentrate on your snack bar/ concession business. This is where the money is to be made! In fact, some drive-in owners will tell you that they are actually restaurant owners who play movies! You need to play up your snack bar in your advertising, in your telephone recording that patrons phone to find out what's playing, in your handouts at the box office, etc. Make it attractive, make it unique. Find some food items that you will be known for. . . things that they can't find at the supermarket or local fast-food places that many customers stop at on their way to your drive-in. Give them a reason to eat at your drive-in! Open early so people can eat supper there. Keep stock of your inventory costs. Find the foods that are popular that will yield a higher profit for you. (Popcorn & soft drinks are the 2 top profit producers.)

  8. You will need to install radio sound at your theatre. Even drive-ins with hard-wired in-car speakers usually utilize radio sound as well. A low-power FM stereo transmitter can deliver the film's soundtrack to patrons' cars in a very dynamic manner. Especially considering the excellent quality sound systems many people have in their cars these days. There are companies that will do this for you.

  9. Here in the United States, most drive-ins are open from April-September when it is the warmest. Because they make money only during a few months time, owners will sometimes establish other businesses on the property- such as a year-round restaurant, flea markets/swap meets or other entertainment facilities. This will help you to be able to support yourself on your drive-in alone and not have to take an outside job. (Most drive-in owners have another job in addition to the drive-in.)

  10. If possible, you should team up with someone else who knows the drive-in theatre business. (It is very different in some respects than the indoors.) At the very least, get to know some owners & learn from their experiences. Also, we would highly recommend that you subscribe to the cinema trade magazines. (If you don't already do so.) Boxoffice magazine http://www.boxoff.com/ & Film Journal International http://www.filmjournal.com/ both have websites for you to learn about subscribing (on-line editions do not contain everything that the magazines do.) Both have a buyer's guide every year which lists contact information for companies providing services to theatres.  Additionally, you should view the Members page of this website for some links to some industry vendors. 
     

  11. Another site which is helpful is: http://www.driveinworkshop.com/index.htm
    For one person's experience in building a drive-in, see http://www.crossroadsdrivein.com/build
    Due to zoning differences, screen tower restrictions, and other localized issues, his method of construction may not be possible in other regions. We urge you to consult a professional screentower builder and cinema equipment specialist to develop your plans.

  12. Approximate cost to build a new drive-in? Roughly $300,000-$500,000 for single screen (not including land).  $400,000-$800,000 for twin screen (not including land).  It is generally cheaper to re-open a closed drive-in than to build a drive-in from scratch since ramping, structures & equipment is often in place.

  13. As with any business, you will need to thoroughly investigate taxes, fees, permits, and other expenses.

  14. Please keep in mind that these are suggestions based on the general observation of the drive-in business. Using these suggestions will not guarantee success by themselves, you will need to experiment to determine what works best in your situation. Drive-ins tend to become known not only for their appearance, value, and good food, but also for their owner. The theatre takes on the owner's personality. It is a hard business demanding long hours, giving up your weekends & summers off, but it also can be rewarding for the friendships you will make & the smiles you will bring to your customers faces. . . and knowing that you did it! The drive-in industry is like a big family.

  15. Most drive-in entrepreneurs arrange their own financing through traditional sources. We are not aware of any firms or agencies that specialize in funding the building of drive-in theatres.

  16. If you think you want to become a drive-in owner, but don't know where to begin, the "first" step we would recommend is to get a job in a drive-in to learn if you can acclimate to the hours and the job tasks. Second step (once you're sure this is something you want to do) is to locate land that is zoned or can be zoned for a drive-in theatre. (In an area NOT competing with an EXISTING drive-in theatre.) Third step is to start on your business & financial plans. Contact your local SCORE chapter for assistance with writing a business plan and other general business details. Once you have progressed beyond the research stage and have plans underway, see below on how to become a temporary member of UDITOA.
     

  17. Please keep in mind that a Drive-In Theatre is usually a full-time job during its operational season.  With ongoing maintenance, clean-up, mowing, etc., be sure that you can allot the necessary time needed to properly and professionally operate a Drive-In.
     

  18. The UDITOA is primarily a support organization for Drive-In Theatre operators and those SERIOUS about opening/re-opening a Drive-In.  We cannot be directly involved in setting-up people in business.


We hope that this information answers your preliminary questions and helps you to have a better perspective on what to expect and the big topics you need to focus on first.

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How do I become a temporary member?

Please read the section above first. When you have made a commitment to the project and have plans underway for the design & financing of your drive-in, contact UDITOA (contact page ) regarding becoming a temporary member. Provide your name, address, previous theatre experience, the site you have in mind, and what stage you are in the set up. An annual progress report is subject to review by our Board of Directors to ascertain if the temporary member is making progress towards actually opening a drive-in theatre, with a limit of 2 years. Temporary members who do not show progress toward opening a drive-in will not have their membership renewed.  Cost is $1000 per year and also includes the registration fee to the annual convention held in Florida.

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What are the benefits to membership?

Members receive a bi-monthly newsletter with features on industry news and best practice tips, as well as an annual membership directory, and access to the UDITOA annual convention. Additionally, owner members receive a certificate, box office decal, and access to the member-only discussion board. The discussion board contains a wealth of valuable information through the exchange of information of other members who participate.  Virtually all the members that interact in the open discussions agree that even those who have been in the business for years, learn many things from other operators.  To date, UDITOA has generated press for the organization and its members through many notable media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, WBZ-radio, Reuter's, theatre trade publications, American Movie Classics TV network, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Associated Press radio network, the Associated Press newspapers, The Washington Post, National Geographic TV network, Gannett newspapers, Knight-Ridder newspapers, Central NY Business Journal, and numerous regional newspapers. See our "News" page for some testimonies from members.

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What does UDITOA do? What doesn't UDITOA do?

UDITOA is a business league whose first priority and primary focus is helping its members to better their business operations.

What doesn't UDITOA do? UDITOA does not provide blueprints for theatre design, archival photographs, business plans, equipment vendor contacts, or income information.

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Can UDITOA help with student projects, film festivals, mobile cinemas?

Since the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association is an all-volunteer business league founded specifically to assist drive-in theatre owners in meeting the challenges of doing business in today’s highly competitive entertainment industry, we must focus our efforts and resources on accomplishing that mission. Our all-volunteer staff and members work with each other to solve problems and to share tips on outdoor cinema operations. (Specifically permanently constructed, commercially operated outdoor drive-in theatres, per UDITOA by-laws.) Since our members perform this service while at the same time operating one or more drive-ins, all very time consuming, the UDITOA is unable to lend assistance with outside projects such as student papers, film festivals, and portable theatres. For students, we recommend http://www.driveinworkshop.com/index.htm as a resource. For mobile theatres or film festivals, see the various internet websites which specialize in this type of venue.  

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Can I join?

Due to the nature of our organization, which is a business league for drive-in motion picture theatre operators, membership categories of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association are limited to professionals working in the motion picture theatre industry. Please see the section of this website titled Join UDITOA for membership requirements.

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