NICE Member of the Month: Brian Allen, his drive-ins & his family’s legacy

NICE Member of the Month: Brian Allen, his drive-ins & his family’s legacy

The Allen family’s storied legacy in Canadian film exhibition:

My family came to Canada in 1905, from Lithuania via the US. They opened their first storefront theatre (then known as a theatorium) in Brantford, Ontario in 1906 and called it the Gem. The theatre was such a great success they expanded and eventually had a circuit of palatial theatres from coast to coast.

The Allen brothers (my grandfather and his older brothers) were riding high in the 1920s. At the time, they were relying on the supply of films from Universal, Fox and Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount).

They ended up in a business conflict with one of the three founders of Paramount, named Adolph Zukor, who wanted to buy the family out. When the Allens refused Zukor’s offer, they not only lost Paramount film product: they now had a new competitor.

Led by N.L. Nathanson and Adolph Zukor, Paramount set up Famous Players as a direct competitor to the Allen theatre chain. The Allen family had a lot of debt and were bankrupt by 1923. Most of their theatres became Famous Players locations. When I read the concerns of independent theatres (members of NICE), I realized not much has changed.

The family started to rebuild in smaller markets such as Kitchener, Stratford and eventually all through northern Ontario. Business was booming until television came in and wiped out a lot of the small town theatres.

In the late 1960s, my father bought out most of the family members and managed the circuit called Premier Operating. The network had approximately 50 theatres, mainly in Ontario with a few in Quebec and Manitoba.

When video came in the early 1980s, Premier Operating had a lot of debt from expansion at extremely high interest rates. The company was teetering for years.

The allure of drive-ins:

When I joined, I thought our only path, in the long run, was drive-in theatres. In the last 20 years, we have shed most of our indoor locations for drive-in theatres. I have always had a passion for drive-ins: the cars, the ’50s memorabilia, the neon and the food!

As a business, given the issues with the studios and the costs to operate a brick-and-mortar cinema, I felt this was a better opportunity to make a living. The cost to run a drive-in is one tenth of an indoor cinema, there is no competition in terms of acquiring product, and of course there is the real estate component.

The drive-in experience:

For the customer, drive-ins offer all sorts of options: You can bring your babies, your dog, your date. Because you are in your car, you control your environment and do what you want. All we ask is that you are respectful to the neighbouring cars.

We have playgrounds, beach volleyball courts, and of course a delicious dinner menu! People also love our nostalgic pre-show from the ’50s describing the drive-in rules, concession trailers (including the dancing hot dog) and of course a rendition of O Canada.

It is a night out where you get two first-run films, like the old-time double bills! We also do specialty programming like art films, Canadiana and corporate content (rentals).

Our menu consists of typical fair type foods. Some of the favourites include our chilli cheese dog, funnel cakes, Pogos, crispy chicken sandwiches, ICEEs, and soft ice cream. We also have Kawartha Dairy ice cream kiosks in some of our locations.

Our customers are very connected to the drive-in theatres. We get a lot of positive feedback with respect to our food and playgrounds…and of course, the prices. Each drive-in is a community unto itself.

During the pandemic we hosted a number of unique events that include a live drag show in Oakville, a Hanukkah lighting in Hamilton, and the army in Barrie.

Future projects:

We recently purchased the Canview Drive-In in the Niagara Region. We intend to renovate it and try to create the magic similar to our other drive-ins. Next year, we will also be adding additional sports facilities, dog parks and musical entertainment before the show.

We still need the top Hollywood films to bring people in and are hopeful that all the other events and enhancements will continue to create a unique environment for our guests.

As we like to say “Movies are Bigger and Better Under the Stars.” And remember, please drive under 10mph when entering the drive-in! 🙂