No Ticket? You Can’t Have-a-the-Panda

A local drive-in is forced to charge kids for the first time since Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

"If you wanna play their product, you gotta take their terms." So says Kieth Kiehl, manager of Auburn's venerable Valley Drive-In, which in May e-mailed a surprising notice to its most regular patrons. "Due to a change in policy at Paramount Pictures, all Drive-In Theatres wanting to play any film they distribute must charge admission for persons aged 5+," read the note. "Effective immediately, we will be charging $1 per child ages 5–11. Please understand that this is something we have been fighting for 15+ years, this is NOT something we want to do, nor is it something we are in any way happy about." Before, kids between 5 and 11 had been admitted free, a long-standing tradition at the Valley, where Kiehl has worked since its 1967 opening. The last time he can recall a similar studio demand, it was from Disney for Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971. "People hated it so much," he says, "we didn't have to do it [again] until now." The Paramount letter—received at drive-ins nationwide—went info effect May 22, the release date for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which, along with Iron Man and Kung Fu Panda, has already grossed $763 million for Paramount in U.S. theaters. By contrast, drive-ins are a small summer business that makes money during a relatively short season. Profiting mainly from concession sales (ticket revenues are split between studio and exhibitor), they tend to be regional, family-owned operations whose primary asset is the land beneath their lots. That land has generally been sold to developers since drive-ins peaked in the '50s, with about two dozen screens in the state and 4,000 nationwide. Today there are six drive-ins left in Washington—the Valley is the largest—and about 600 in the U.S. (less than two percent of all screens nationally). With the weather improving and kids out of school, Kiehl says business is still good ("upward of 1,000 cars on a weekend," he says) on his five functioning screens. But as Paramount squeezes the Valley for more money, the drive-in's owner, a California-based family company named the Decurion Corporation, is planning to develop the 60-acre site as a mixed-use urban village. Calls to the developer weren't returned, but Auburn city planner Jeff Dixon has the project has "slipped a bit from the initial timeframe."

 
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