How Enderby's Starlight Drive-in has survived in a nearly extinct business - InfoNews

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How Enderby's Starlight Drive-in has survived in a nearly extinct business

Starlight Drive-in co-owner Paul Lindquist stands in front of North America's biggest outdoor cinema screen.
July 24, 2019 - 6:00 AM

ENDERBY - When the screen at Enderby's Starlight Drive-In Theatre needs a clean or a new lick of paint, owner Paul Lindquist says he won't go all the way to the top.

Standing underneath the mammoth screen, it's not hard to see why. Towering roughly 60 feet into the air - the equivalent of a six-storey building - climbing to the top of the screen is enough to make even the most fearless get vertigo.

The 6,000-square feet screen is the biggest drive-in movie screen in North America. That fact alone is remarkable, but what's more remarkable is that the drive-in theatre exists at all.

It's one of only three in the province and Lindquist estimates there's probably less than a dozen in the entire country.

On a stinky hot July afternoon, Lindquist, with his dog Norton in tow, places traffic cones along the dirt road that leads into the drive-in, getting ready for what he hopes will be another busy summer night. Even after 18 years in business, Lindquist is still very hands-on.

"I'm on the field for 110 nights," he said. "And we have 43 left."

Sweat drips off his brow as he wanders the field, picking up the odd bit of garbage and making sure everything is spick and span.

The drive-in theatre just outside Enderby opened in 1996 and had seen three different owners try, and fail, to make a go of it when Lindquist bought it in 2002. He now runs it with two other business partners.

Lindquist has been in the cinema industry since 1978 and was looking for a theatre, but never considered buying a drive-in.

"Okanagan. Drive-in movie theatre. [The] largest screen still standing. I thought how can it not work?" he says. "In the first year, we lost a lot of money."

Nearly 20 years later, Lindquist is proud of the theatre they've created and what it represents.

"It turns from an empty field into a celebration of family," he said. "It's absolutely magical... there's an ambience out there that will never be recreated anywhere else."

Lindquist says cars sometimes start showing up as early as 5 p.m. Moviegoers travel from as far as Kamloops, Penticton and Revelstoke to spent an evening at the drive-in. And on a busy summer weekend, the logistics of getting everyone in place is complex. With the movies starting only once the sun has gone down, there are a few hours to kill where families hang-out, kids ride bikes, play frisbee and as twilight approaches the anticipation builds. With every night playing a double bill, it's always a late night at the drive-in.

"You can not describe what's going on out there, at the break when you see all these kids coming out of their cars in their pyjamas, it's magical."

Lindquist's enthusiasm for the theatre is evident but as a business it's been far from clear sailing.

"It took us 10 years to get on our feet," he said.

While the transition from 35-millimetre film to digital has ultimately been good for business, giving them more flexibility in showing movies, for a while it looked like it would kill the business.

No digital projector existed that could project a movie 401 feet onto a 6,000 square feet screen. The only option was to have two projectors closer to the screen at a cost of about $500,000.

"We thought we will go out with our heads held high," Lindquist said.

Then, two months before the 2012 season was about to begin, a projector was produced. Lindquist won't say how much it cost, just "it was twice the amount I paid for my first house."

Lindquist admits the decision was based on emotion, not business.

"[Now] we have one of the best projectors in the world in a little hayfield outside of Enderby."

While some aspects are very high-tech, moviegoers still have to tune-in their car radio to hear the movie and smartphone radio apps have a lag and don't work at the drive-in.

Charging just $11 per adult for the double-bill movies, Lindquist also says their concession stand prices are 30 to 50 per cent lower than a multiplex cinema. He also painstakingly reproduced the concession stand with original 1960 decore.

"Our business model is, keep it cheap, keep it full, because it's way more fun to be watching a movie with a 1,000 people than it is with a hundred."

From their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, drive-in theatres started to decline in the 1970s as cities grew and housing took over in the rural areas where drive-ins typically did business. Along with housing came street lights creating too much ambient light for outdoor movie screens.

The Starlight only has three street lights to contend with, and they are further down the highway and with the high price of land in the Okanagan and all the ongoing development, it's a wonder that the Starlight is still going at all.

"What we're so proud of about the place is it's not a retro experience... it's an authentic experience... and we keep it that way."

For more information about the Starlight Drive-in including movie listings and a full list of FAQs go here.

By day, a big dusty field.
By day, a big dusty field.

By night, the atmosphere changes.
By night, the atmosphere changes.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Starlight Drive In Theatre

Lindquist and his dig Norton stand in front of the massive screen.
Lindquist and his dig Norton stand in front of the massive screen.

The concession stand features plenty of 1960s originals.
The concession stand features plenty of 1960s originals.

Tune in your radio. And no apps don't work.
Tune in your radio. And no apps don't work.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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