SHELBYVILLE – The state of the modern drive-in-movie business is hardly a heartwarming tale of the underdog overcoming impossible odds, and yet, Joe Gaudin holds out hope of a Hollywood-style happy ending.
Gaudin owns and operates Shelbyville’s Skyline Drive-In Movie Theatre. He bought the venue in 2009 from the DeWitt family, who’d owned it since 1971.
The Skyline had been doing well under Gaudin, cruising along, a local business catering to a specific niche of family-oriented movie lovers sick of skyrocketing multiplex prices. Then, recent news from Hollywood changed the game, and now Gaudin finds himself in a fight for survival.
His “Save the Skyline” fundraising drive formally kicks off Saturday morning, with a full day of events that will culminate in a fireworks show and a triple-feature of current-release, family-friendly movies. In addition to the movies and the fireworks by Sarge’s Fireworks Extreme Pyro, the event will also feature a car show and a flea market.
According to Gaudin, although Drive-In Theatres declined steadily in popularity through the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s (Indiana now has 17, down from a peak of 180), the industry began a modest renaissance around 2006.
Now comes Hollywood’s digital revolution.
In November, Gaudin explained, all the major movie studios will begin phasing out tradition 35 mm film, with a complete transition completed early next year. That’s a big problem for drive-in movie theatres.
“It’s going to cost $60,000 to change to a digital projector,” Gaudin explained. “That’s not that big a deal for a multiplex; they’ll just tack it on to admission. Many of them have already made the changeover. For smaller theatres though, and especially for drive-in theatres, $60,000 is a really big deal. It’s enough to put you out of business or to make you close down and sale the land.”
Indeed, long before the advent of digital movies, many owners found that selling their land was more profitable than maintaining a drive-in movie business, Gaudin said; that was one of the major reasons behind the industry’s decline over the last several decades.
By their very nature, these theatres require a significant amount of land (the Skyline sits on 8 acres).
“The first drive-in opened 80 years ago this year in Camden N.J.,” Gaudin explained. “When these venues first opened, they tended to be built in parts of the city very suitable for expansion. And that’s what happened. Cities grew up around the venues and as they did, drive-in property became more and more valuable.”
He added, “When you consider the cost of upkeep and maintenance, and the taxes on a piece of land that size, it just makes more sense for many folks to sell.”
In example of this trend, he mentioned Tidds Drive-in on Indianapolis’ west side.
“They’ve got four screens,” he explained. “They’ve got at least three times more land than me – around 24 acres. They’re in a primo spot in the city, too. They could really clean up if they decided to sell, but they’re like me; they love the drive-in movie business. You kind of have to love it to own one.”
The Skyline itself, which opened in 1950, was initially opened at a different location.
“It was called The Shelby back then,” Gaudin said. “It was located where Big Lots and McDonald’s are today. Those businesses paid a lot of money for the land.”
Gaudin has many fond childhood memories of seeing movies with his family at the Shelby – and at the Skyline.
“I love movies,” he said. “But that’s not the only reason I decided to buy. The drive-in isn’t just about movies. There’s a whole culture around it. It’s about families doing something together, hanging out, having a picnic before the show, throwing a Frisbee around, just having fun. Our lot is all grass, so it’s a perfect place to spread a blanket and curl up under the stars with the family and watch a movie.”
Best of all, Gaudin reminded, drive-in movie prices are still well below the cost of seeing a movie indoors.
“We’re having a triple feature here Saturday night,” he said, “‘Despicable Me 2,’ ‘Monsters University,’ and ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness.’ Price of admission is $7 per person. On Sundays, we have carload night. Pile as many people as you can into the car for a movie and everybody gets in for $20.”
With his Save the Skyline Drive, Gaudin hopes to not only remain in operation, but also to keep his admission prices the same.
“You know,” he said, “we could go out and find the money other ways, but if we can do this through fundraising, we’ll be able to keep our prices the same, and that’s important to me. We’re here for everybody, but especially for families who can’t afford multiplex prices.”
Gaudin confessed, in fact, that after the switch to digital, overhead would decrease ever-so slightly.
And although Save the Skyline doesn’t formally kickoff until Saturday, Gaudin says he’s been working for a few months, behind the scenes, securing pledges and donations.
“We’ve already got close $20,000 raised,” he said. “So we need to raise about $40,000 more.”
Gaudin will kick off an online fundraising event later this month, and in August, he’ll stage “a couple concerts” on site and two nights of “Super Monster Movie Fest.”
“We’ll be showing four horror films from the ‘50s and ‘60s each night,” he said. “The prices of admission will be $7.”
On September 8, the Skyline will host a wine fest, and September 22 will be the “Rock the Skyline” all-day music fest.
For anyone interested in opening a booth at Saturday’s Flea Market or entering a vehicle in the car show, registration runs from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday at Skyline, located at 3896 East Michigan Road, Shelbyville.
For more information on Saturday’s Save the Skyline all-day kickoff, call 317-398-6827 or visit www.theskylinedrivein.com.
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011