Moonlite Drive-In Projects Future Challenges
BROOKVILLE, Pa. (EYT) – The Moonlite Drive-In Theater in Brookville, the only first-run movie theater between Clarion and DuBois, is a labor of love for Jim Lipuma, owner of Moonlite since 1996.
The Moonlite, opened early this year in March, but its main season starts on Memorial Day and ends in the middle of August, showing major movies such as Iron Man 3 and Oz, the Great and Powerful in recent weeks.
“We’re charging $7.00 for adults and $3.00 for kids,” said Lipuma. “Where can you go and spend twenty bucks for a family of four and have an entire evening of entertainment with two movies? Twenty bucks doesn’t buy you much anymore, but you can come to the Moonlite.”
It is a great bargain for the many customers, but the continuing operation of a drive-in is a real challenge when most of your profits come from the concession stand.
Although the deck is almost stacked against a successful operation due to limits of the business and changing technology, Lipuma aims at keeping the Moonlite open.
Two of the challenges facing a drive-in theater are weather and selection of movies.
“We don’t have control of the weather, and you can imagine that weather seriously impacts our business,” said Lipuma. “If there’s good weather, it’s a wonderful weekend. Even if it doesn’t rain, but they predict rain, people will decide to go another night.”
Control over what movies are available is also crucial for success.
“We don’t have any control over shows,” continues Lipuma. “For instance, I’ve asked for kid’s shows, but there’s not going to be any until close to the beginning of July. We’re going to go from Iron Man to Fast and Furious. For the holiday weekend, there’s only one kid’s show called Epic that I’m not fond of what I saw in advance.”
“We’ve had nights here that we’ve had sell-out crowds, and we’ve had nights out here where there’s 40 people. It depends on the weather and the shows. On a Saturday night with Iron Man and Oz there were almost a thousand people.”
Probably the major challenge facing Lipuma is the conversion to a digital projection system. The movie business is moving toward the elimination of the traditional print copies of movies and replacing it with digital presentations. Lipuma says that it is already getting harder and harder to even obtain print copies of films and fears the eventual elimination of such copies.
“For a small theater in Brookville to make the investment in digital, it’s really tough to do. The cost is going to be about $90,000.00 to put it in here. It’s really tough to finance that year round when you really only have income for approximately 10 weeks out of the year,” adds Lipuma.
“I don’t know if we’re going to convert. We’re trying to do everything we can to promote drive-in theaters, trying to get people here. The patrons have been wonderful turning out. I’ve had people offer me money, saying I’d like to give you $100.00 for a digital projector, but I won’t accept it. I say to them, ‘Do me a favor. Just come as often as you possibly can, bring your friends and family. That’s what we need.’”
The business side of running a drive-in theater also presents challenging demands because of the prices they must pay to the film companies. The average payment for new movies is 65 to 70 percent, but it is sometimes higher, according to Lipuma.
“There have been times where we’ve paid 80 percent of the box office to the film companies. If we want to get a big movie and bring the audiences here, sometimes you have to do that. The only option you have is to take someone else’s movie instead. They’re in business to make money, so they squeeze us. The box office does not leave us much money,” adds Lipuma.
Even a big-name movie is no guarantee of an audience. Lipuma points to last year when the Moonlite had the new editions of Spiderman and Batman in July, but didn’t generate as much business as expected. In a drive-in’s short season, “if you lose July it has a negative impact on the whole year.”
The real key to any profits at a drive-in is what people eat. With little money coming from the box office because of film studio prices, any profit has to be made at the concession stand.
“If the people come here that don’t eat much, they’re really not supporting us that much,” says Lipuma. “The concession stand is our number one money maker.”
Lipuma has 32 years of experience in the drive-in business, starting at age 15 at the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In Theatre in North Versailles, Pa., in 1982 as a summer job.
He says it was a summer job that he fell in love with and enjoyed. He also opened the Galaxy Drive-In in Vandergrift in 1995 and ran it for 10 years when he decided not to renew the lease.
He purchased the Moonlite in Brookville after the flood in 1996 and opened it on May 2, 1997. Lipuma also moved to Brookville about seven and a half years ago and served as fire chief for five years.
The high cost of digital conversion is still a dark cloud hanging over the Moonlite and leaves an uncertain future.
“I don’t know what the outcome is going to be for the Moonlite. I think this summer will tell. If we have a good summer, we can make some money and put a decent down payment on a digital projector, then I would expect that we’ll be back next year. If we can’t then I’m going to bet that the Moonlite will be no more because it’s just going to be really tough to pull it off,” states Lipuma.
Despite the challenges, Lipuma loves the business and wants to continue.
“I still love it as much as when I started. I never expected to own one, let alone two, and 32 years later I still enjoy what I do,” says Lipuma. “I hope to God we can keep the Moonlite afloat for many generations to come.”
“It really does it for me to see families come together under the stars to watch the stars at Moonlite Drive-In.”
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