Not a blockbuster summer: Hollywood’s sagging box office means dip for Northfield Drive-In
The Northfield Drive-In saw an 8 percent drop in attendance from last year, said owner Mitchell Shakour. However, the box office gross was about the same because ticket prices went up 50 cents per person this year.
Carla Folkert with the new digital projector at the Northfield Drive-in Theatre. They have invested $150,000 in the projector upgrades. Recorder/Paul Franz
NORTHFIELD — The Northfield Drive-In entered the digital age this year and although the picture was better, business was a mixed bag.
“It wasn’t a great season,” said owner Mitchell Shakour. “The summer movie industry was down 22 percent this year, the biggest year-to-year drop since they started keeping statistics. When Hollywood catches pneumonia, we catch a cold.”
After the season ended with the annual Labor Day weekend quadruple-feature, Shakour sat down to crunch the numbers.
The drive-in saw an 8 percent drop in attendance from last year, he said. However, the box office gross was about the same because ticket prices went up 50 cents per person this year.
Prices were raised to help offset the necessary conversion from film to digital projectors. It cost nearly $200,000 for the projector and facility upgrades, which included three-phase power, a broadband connection, security system and year-round climate control. The old arc-and-carbon twin projectors were retired last year, as the movie industry continues its move to digital-only distribution.
Shakour said the summer movie season suffered because of a lack of big-ticket blockbusters.
“There just weren’t as many good movies out there,” he said. “Every year, one of our biggest is a Disney-Pixar film. They didn’t release a movie this summer, so that hurt.”
Despite the sluggish season, Shakour remains optimistic.
“The flip-side is I think next year is going to be great,” he said.
Food sales up
Despite a dip in attendance, the concessions stand was busier than ever, according to Shakour. With much of the box office take going to Hollywood for movie rights, refreshments are where theaters really make their money.
“Our concessions sales were up 10 percent this year,” Shakour said. “I think people finally got the message. They’re coming early and eating at the snack bar.”
He said the increase in food sales offset the lower attendance, and the drive-in grossed just about as much money as last year.
Those who didn’t make it to the Northfield Drive-In this year missed out on the new, crystal-clear picture and much-improved audio, said Shakour.
“It’s like an 80-foot high-definition TV,” he said.
It’s also much brighter, which he said makes a big difference during dimly lit movie scenes.
“To me, that’s made a huge difference,” Shakour explained. “I’ve had trouble seeing some movies (with the old projectors) because they were so dark. I shied away from showing dark movies, except ‘Batman.’ You can’t shy away from ‘Batman.’”
A close call
At one point in the middle of the season, it looked like the $85,000 projector was ruined.
“A night before the Fourth of July, my son came in to load the weekend’s films and found the projector flooded with water. That was a nightmare,” Shakour recalled.
Though the previous night saw severe thunderstorms and torrential rain, the flood came by way of condensation rather than a leaky roof. The projection booth’s air conditioning was left on to keep the sensitive equipment cool and the humidity condensed in the cold exhaust vent and dripped into the projector.
“It was soaking wet, right into the center of the machine.”
The service company told them not to turn it on until it was dried out.
“We got a big dehumidifier and some lint-free cloth, and the three of us spent hours painstakingly drying it out,” Shakour continued.
They came back the next morning to find it was still wet, so they set to work drying it out again. Finally, they flicked it on and crossed their fingers.
It started, and stayed, running and the day was saved.
Although the Northfield Drive-In closed after Labor Day weekend, it will open again Sept. 13 for an invite-only affair.
“We’ll be hosting our first-ever wedding at the drive-in,” Shakour explained. “They’re going to have dinner, drinks and a band, and when it gets dark they’re going to put on a film or two.”
An outside caterer will be brought in, said Shakour, so guests don’t have to choose between snack bar items like hot dogs and chicken fingers.
The new digital projector makes it much easier to custom-make an event at the drive-in. With the old 35mm projectors, if someone wanted to screen their favorite old flick, they’d have to find a print — no easy task. Now, they only have to bring a copy on DVD or Blu-Ray.
Shakour said thinking outside the box and using the drive-in as a venue rather than just a theater may be the way of the future.
He pointed to the Mendon Twin Drive-In, which hosts corporate events, streams live concerts and holds a classic car cruise-night. The Worcester County drive-in also shows older films in the fall, bringing in people who want to see their favorite flicks on the big-screen again. They’ve also got a liquor license and beer garden, as well as a prime location.
“Not everything that they’re doing would work for us, though,” Shakour said.
Shakour said the Mendon drive-in, now owned by the Andelman brothers of “Phantom Gourmet” fame, has the benefit of extensive marketing as well as a larger customer base. Situated about 30 minutes from Providence, R.I. and an hour from Boston, there’s simply a bigger population, meaning more potential moviegoers.
The Shakour family has owned the drive-in since 1967.
“We’re here as long as you guys come,” he said.