SYDNEY — Phillip and Doreen Evely have been regular patrons of the Cape Breton Drive-In Theatre for many years, typically parking themselves at the venue once a week.
It’s a long-standing family tradition for the Glace Bay couple and their kids.
“We’ve been (coming) here since we were kids,” said Phillip, prior to Friday night's screening of "The Wolverine" and "World War Z". “It’s something that my parents always did for me and it’s something we’ve always enjoyed. We’re usually here with our kids. This is very rare that it’s just the two of us.”
The Cape Breton Drive-In Theatre was opened in 1975 by James and Toula Sifnakis, on Grand Lake Road just outside of Sydney. Their son, Angelo Sifnakis, vice-president of operations, now runs most of the day-to-day operations of the drive-in — which like many across Canada and the United States is facing some tough decisions.
Movie studios are phasing out 35 mm film prints and will soon be switching exclusively to an all-digital distribution system, leaving drive-in theatre owners to grapple with whether to close their gates or gamble that the costs of the digital conversion will be pay off in the end.
“I’d love to take the leap but the thing is, is that the drive-in has to become more than just a drive-in theatre,” said Sifnakis, noting that in order to survive long-term the facility must be a true family destination. “I want to make it into a recreational park but that’s going to take hoards of money and need some government help and so forth.”
Sifnakis said he’s working to arrange meetings with government officials, and is looking at other ways to raise money for the digital upgrades, which he estimates would cost approximately $75,000, in addition to costly regular maintenance he must complete each year on the facility’s steel screen in order to meet regulations.
The Evely’s are hoping Sifnakis is successful and feel there’s lots of support for the theatre in the community.
“Even if they went so far as to do some kind of fundraising or something for it, I think it would be definitely worthwhile,” said Phillip.
If the permanent closure of Empire Theatres' Westville Drive-In goes ahead this September as currently noted on its website, the Cape Breton Drive-In Theatre and the Valley Drive-In in Coldbrook, N.S. will be the only two remaining in Nova Scotia. Sifnakis said there’s also two drive-in theatres operating in Prince Edward Island, and five in New Brunswick.
At $17.99 a car load, Lorette Poirier, from Evanston, Richmond County, said the Cape Breton drive-in is an affordable option for her family of five. While Friday night was her first time at the drive-in, members of her family have made the trip a few times.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time and I just never got a chance. It’s a nice drive up and it’s definitely worth coming up. We bring treats and it’s a good night out for a family.”
Meanwhile, Sifnakis is hopeful the business can survive, just as it has for close to four decades despite a range of challenges from the growth in VCRs and rental videos in the 1980s, the emergence of huge multiple-screen movie theatres in the 1990s, and the effects of outmigration in the local area for the last number of years.
He describes it as a tough seasonal business with fluctuating attendance numbers, which are reliant on a range of factors from weather to the type of movies that are available to be screened in a given season.
But for now, the gates at the Cape Breton Drive-In Theatre remain open.
“It will stay open hopefully until October (Thanksgiving) weekend as long we’re able to get what they call 35 mm movies. Very, very soon they’re cutting that off,” he said. “If we don’t change to digital then we can’t put on a show.”