HALIFAX—In a summer dominated by Disney blockbusters, the people behind Nova Scotia’s last mainland drive-in theatre are speaking out in frustration over a Disney policy they say could bury a small outfit like theirs.
Kirk Longmire, chair of the Valley Drive-In Theatre, in Cambridge, N.S., has joined Prince Edward Island’s Brackley Drive-In Theatre in calling on the entertainment conglomerate to change their practice of offering most new releases for a minimum run of three weeks straight. The drive-in is run as a Lions Club-supported non-profit.
While multiplex theatres usually have no trouble setting aside a screen for three weeks to play a big-ticket film, Longmire said that’s not the case with single-screen drive-ins. They only have 20 weekends a season, Longmire said, so having the same film three weeks in a row won’t entice people to come back.
“What a drive-in needs, quite frankly, is variety — and if you don’t have that, when somebody blocks you from access, then your business model all of a sudden turns sideways,” Longmire said.
Longmire has been the drive-in chair since the Valley took its current form in 2000. It first opened in 1950 and was privately-run until the last operator sold it to the municipality in the late 1990s, when the non-profit came in. He said the Valley selects films through a movie broker, who negotiates terms with the various film companies. Those terms are a percentage of whatever the gate revenues are — normally about 50 per cent or higher, Longmire said.
In his 18 years as chair, Longmire said “as long as we’re prepared to pay,” the drive-in can usually get films within the first three weeks of release.
Disney has “never been the easiest to deal with,” Longmire said, adding that the company has had the three-week minimum policy in negotiations for about four years. Disney’s acquisition of film production heavyweights Lucasfilm and Marvel Entertainment — a deal to purchase 21st Century Fox is also reportedly in the works — leaves fewer options and less variety for drive-ins to choose from.
“That’s what’s really the push right now, is to say ‘Jeez, Disney’s killing us, and if they buy (21st Century Fox), how are we going to survive now?”
Disney’s blockbuster presence has reached a “critical mass” this summer as titles like Incredibles 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp have dominated the box office. With more projected hits coming soon — like next month’s Christopher Robin — Longmire said, “there’s nothing to play.”
Incredibles 2 has already grossed $504.4 million since its June 15 release, Forbes reported Monday, making it the highest-grossing animated feature of all time in North America.
However, since Longmire said the Valley can’t afford to take Disney films like Incredibles 2 right away, they’ll have to wait until likely eight weeks out, which puts them in August, if then. That’s happened already with Solo: A Star Wars Story, when the Han Solo origin tale played at the Valley about six weeks after its release.
“Everybody’s forgotten about the movie, the advertising’s over,” Longmire said.
StarMetro reached out to a Disney spokesperson for comment on the three-week minimum, but did not hear back Tuesday. A company spokesperson told CTV Atlantic that each film is negotiated on an individual basis and that the company does not restrict all films to a three-week minimum.
But Longmire said in his experience that is indeed the policy.
“There is no moving in that policy, that’s why we’ve gone to the media about it. … If it’s false, please show us something different.”
Longmire said other Atlantic drive-ins have the same issues with Disney negotiations, and he has heard about some in Saskatchewan and Western Canada who have said “We’re watching this very closely,” although they might be more hesitant to speak publicly.
The Valley is the last mainland N.S. drive-in, and only other in the province besides the Cape Breton Drive-In Theatre in Sydney.
Like P.E.I.’s Brackley Drive-In before them, the Valley took to Facebook last week asking for supporters to show their disappointment with Disney’s policy by commenting on the company’s social media platforms about how the three-week booking term was unfair.
Their post has more than 300 shares, and dozens of people have taken to speaking out at Walt Disney Canada with comments such as “This is not fair. Let’s keep the drive-ins going for future generations.”
What Longmire and other drive-in owners are really hoping is that executives within Disney might now listen to that angry consumer voice, even if they haven’t paid attention to theatre owners.
“We just need champions within the organization, that’s what we’re hoping to get,” he said.
Longmire said while he knows drive-ins are more of a niche form of entertainment, families and young couples looking for a unique outing still continue to discover the Valley. And while he wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying a drive-in now, the classic form of filmgoing is in no danger of dying off due to lack of enthusiasm, he said.
He said the drive-in holds up to 400 cars a night and they’ve already had two sellouts so far this season, “which is huge.” Most cars hold about three or four people, so that’s “a lot of bodies,” he said.
The Valley usually will see between 14,000-17,000 people in the run of a season, he added.
“It’s not a small thing, it is a big deal and it’s not dying. It is certainly growing. … A third of the people that come to the drive-in each week are brand new,” Longmire said.
“If we can get content, we’ll be here for another 20 years — I can guarantee it.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that the Valley Drive-In Theatre in Cambridge, N.S. was the last one in Nova Scotia. In fact, the Cape Breton Drive-In Theatre in Sydney, N.S. is also running and brings the province’s drive-in total to two.
Haley Ryan is a Halifax-based reporter covering women’s issues and advocacy. Follow her on Twitter: @hkryan17