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How 88 Drive-In Theatre Beat Big Government

The Colo.-based entrepreneur has been running the theater for the past 20 years. A critical part of her business model is keeping prices as low as possible.

How low? Try $8 to see up to three new releases at a time, with children under 12 are free.

“Thank you for keeping this alive. It’s the only place we can afford to go,” they tell her.

“I know we’re providing a service people want. It means as much to them as it means to me,” Kochevar says.

The theater’s longevity is capitalism in action … with a little help from Facebook.

88 drive in theater
The 88 Drive-In Theater regularly attracts around 500 customers on hot summer nights.

A typical summer night at 88 Drive-In Theatre brings hordes of families to the theater’s gravel expanse. Children frolic a few yards in front of the movie screen, playing with balls purchased at the theater’s snack shop.

You might hear the sounds of summertime baseball, courtesy of the Colorado Rockies. Or movie goers could crank up the classic rock out of their car speakers.

The mood is light, festive. People mill about, visiting the snack bar where reasonably priced burgers, pretzels and other goodies await. It’s like a Denver Broncos tailgate party, but it happens all summer long.

drive-in-concessions

Once night falls, customers either watch the movies from inside their cars or from chairs set up in front of their back bumpers.

The 7-acre theater in Commerce City is just one of four such Colorado drive-ins listed with the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association (UDITOA).

A relatively new addition to the scene, the Denver Mart Drive In, also serves up a similar service to residents in Adams County, Colo.

Drive-In theaters were once a ubiquitous part of the American movie-going landscape. Now, their numbers are less than 400.

Kochevar’s parents bought the theater in 1976. At the time, the movie house showed X-rated movies. That didn’t sit well with some neighbors, especially since trees were sparse and an elementary school stood nearby, she notes.

Someone fire-bombed the structure, and Kochevar’s family bought it. That first season took plenty out of her family.

“We would work all night and pick up trash in the morning,” she says. “For a young person I learned a lot. I learned how to work hard.”

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Kochevar grew up, studied to be a broadcast news anchor and later realized her true passion -- being a business operator. The family business, to be precise.

“I’ve been running it myself now for 20 years,” she says.

It hasn’t always been easy. Her drive-in can’t avoid what ails most outdoor theaters.

“Sneak ins still happen,” she says with a smile, like when a guy pulls up and he’s got a purse next to him on the passenger seat.

Many drive-in theaters folded in recent years due to the evolving film distribution process. Theaters were forced to embrace digital technology after decades of showing film prints.

Kochevar knew the change was coming and saved up accordingly. Digital projectors can set a drive-in owner back about $100,000, she says.

“We lost a lot of drive-ins and a lot of small town indoor [theaters],” she says. “it’s really sad because they’re such amazing little places.”

88-drive-in-projector-room-
A view from the 88 Drive-In Theatre’s projection room.

The new projectors require greater care to keep them cool. They also demand light bulbs that last for about 500-600 hours. She typically goes through two bulbs in a season.

“That’s been a huge expense,” she says.

Other obstacles proved more daunting.

“There’s been a lot of philosophy lost in terms of running the business, understanding how the industry works,” she says. “Movies were typically low-cost entertainment. Now, not so much.”

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A couple going to the movies could easily run up a $50 bill just by buying tickets and concession stand snacks.

“That’s hurt the industry. I work hard to keep my prices extra low so people can come back every week,” she says.

88-drive-in-archive-
88 Drive-In Theatre owner Susan Kochevar keeps memories of the theater’s past alive in the projection room.

Two years ago, the theater stared down a serious threat from the local government. She says city officials began blaming the drive-in for the crush of traffic surrounding the parcel.

“We’ve been here for 40 years, and nothing’s changed. But the city has grown around us,” she says.

Local law enforcement officials got involved. Officials wanted her to renovate the parcel to help alleviate the traffic issue. Nasty letters followed.

88-drive-in-film-platforms-
Parts of the old-school film process still remain in the 88 Drive-In Theatre’s projection room.

Matters looked bleak. So Kochevar fought back with a simple social media strategy.

She posted one of the aforementioned letters on the drive-in’s Facebook page, along with a link to a petition supporting the business’s side of the debate.

“Twenty thousand of my customers signed it,” she says. The local City Council got the petition, but not before Kochevar could stage her own Hollywood moment.

“Who do you represent, the citizens or the police department?” she said at the time, as news cameras rolled. “You can’t blame the drive-in for this.”

Kochevar won.

“Without [Facebook] I would have been run out of business, just like that,” she says.

It’s one reason she ran as a Republican for State House District 29 in Jefferson County two years ago. She’s running again this year.

“It’s not about right or left. It’s about small government versus large government,” she says. “I knew sooner or later I would have issues with some regulatory body. In the 20 years I’ve been doing this myself, regulations and taxation has skyrocketed, an exponential explosion.”

“Every industry has its own regulatory issues … it’s tough to have a united front, but we need to start pushing back,” she adds.

It helps that the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association offers help when needed. In the past, drive-in theatre owners kept industry secrets to themselves. Not anymore.

“Now, we’re a big family,” she says.

The future for drive-in movies is far from certain, but Kochevar is doing all she can to preserve the tradition. One look at the 88 Drive In Theatre crowd and you’ll see the next generation of customers munching on candy and kicking up dirt with their busy sneakers.

“They can buy something every week and really enjoy the experience,” she says of the youngest patrons. “If you keep your prices low you make it up in volume, the Laffer curve. People are happier. That keeps my customers close.”

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21 Comments

  1. One of the best reasons for going out to a late movie is to get away from kids. The last thing you want is letting kids in for free, which might not be so bad for a Saturday matinee.

    1. Jim, send your kids with the babysitter to the Drive In, take your spouse to the indoor theater. Problem solved, and the kids think you are a genius.

      1. No, I choose the late movie to get away from OTHER people’s kids. I have the good sense not to pollute the earth by breeding my own.

        1. As I tell my son who is big on no pre-marital sex: hard to judge if its really a choice, or just his personality. I wouldn’t brag too much about your “good sense”.

        2. Good start but you need to finish the job. I recommend a Tylenol overdose, it’s not fast but it’s guaranteed to work.

        3. Go on Tuesday nights. Tuesday is the day with the lowest movie attendance, followed by Wednesday. I’ve gone to 8PM showings of new releases on Tuesdays and we’ve been the only people in the theater.

    2. Jimbino – I understand where you are coming from, but you are approaching it from the wrong perspective. You should be happy that this lady is getting all the kids to go to her movie theater so that you can enjoy yourself at the kids-don’t-get-in-free movie theater on the other side of town.
      Trust me, when I want to take my four earth-polluting-germ-carrying-noise-making tax deductions to the movies, it will be at the one where I can get the most bang for the buck. You and your hipster friends will be safe from us.

  2. I thought this was funny:

    “Who do you represent, the citizens or the police department?” she said at the time, as news cameras rolled. “You can’t blame the drive-in for this.”

    She understood what she was doing when she asked a tongue-in-cheek question. She turned on the light, and the cockroaches went scurrying. Give humans power, and they want more. This is the reason that strong central governments were the leading cause of death and misery in the 20th century.

  3. So the city wanted a business owner to bear the cost of correcting their faulty planning. Typical. We have the worst political class ever.

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