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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: August 20, 2013

RY RUSSELL – OWNER OF SACO DRIVE-IN THEATER

At 23, Ry is the youngest owner of a drive-in movie theater by perhaps thirty years. It’s an unexpected career path for someone in his generation. Nor, is it yet, a career, if a career is measured by income. But a career can also be made up of what it gives and what is given to it. The Saco Drive-In theater is  not Ry’s only job, but it is his deepest passion and largest investment. It is the home of childhood memories, the catalyst for his professional growth, and the place where he met the woman who is now his girlfriend.

In 2011, the drive-in was failing: worth more as a future strip mall than as a theater. Then came Ry, with a zeal for marketing and a drive to resurrect the dying business. Last November, the drive-in was stronger, but struggling. He nearly quit, but Ry invested in one last season for a miracle to happen. And that miracle, that shot-in-the-dark chance, has come in the form of a contest by Honda. In the next few weeks, voters will decide the fate of the drive in. It’s all Ry has left to save the theater.

 TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT THE DRIVE-IN.

I lease the land. I own all the rights to the business. This place was just going under, completely. When the landowners decided they were going to sell it, every offer included tearing it down. In the last two decades, there’ve been about 4,000 drive-ins that have been bought and torn down and turned into malls and retail outlets. No one buys a drive-in to run a drive-in.  For me, I didn’t take over the drive in to make any money, I took it over because I grew up in Saco. It’s what my moderate to low-income family could afford to do. We grew up about seven miles from the drive-in, and this is just what we did together. When I saw it was for sale, I was still in college at the time and I wanted to preserve it, when everyone else was trying to tear it down. It was about preserving the best part of growing up. I’ve put everything I can financially to get this where it is. You’ve got to love it or you aren’t going to get anything out of this.

 DO YOU DO OTHER WORK TO SUPPORT YOURSELF?

I do. I am a director of marketing for a mortgage company in Scarborough. Their donation to the drive-in is me. I had a conversation with my boss the other week in which I told him how grateful I was for him letting me do this for the nine full weeks the drive-in is open in the summer, and giving it one last shot. This is the first thing I did, this is what drew attention to me in marketing. Once I could prove I could take a bankrupt business and make it profitable, it became easy to find a job after that. I also own some retail kiosks in the mall. If we didn’t have that, there’d be no way to keep this going.

 WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF A DIGITAL PROJECTOR?

All of the movie companies have decided to do away with film. There were only two distributors, Fuji and Kodak. When one of them went bankrupt, the other doubled the price. They want to make every theater convert to digital because they can transfer the films on cheaper hard drives. Theaters were told last year that film companies were going to only use digital, and we were given one year to get the projector. It’s going to hit the movie industry hard. Some bigger theaters are subsidized by the movie companies.

 TELL ME ABOUT THIS OPPORTUNITY TO HAVE TO SAVE THE THEATER.

Honda reached out to us.  They are running a voting contest to give away a projector.  The advertiser reached out as part of a project for Honda, and asked what drive-ins need. We need a digital projector. He flew out the next day, and we talked. He filmed the national piece with us, and they filmed here for two days. We have a few more weeks to make this happen, community members are reaching out to get votes.  If we can win this contest with Honda, we’ll be all set. We can afford to make everything else operate.

 WAS IT THE MARKETING THAT TURNED THE DRIVE-IN AROUND?

Yes, it was definitely the marketing. There weren’t even many people in my generation that knew about the drive-in. When I was in college and took over this place, it drew a lot of attention, nobody got it. Drive-ins like this one did a great job marketing to their audience in the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s, and then followed that audience with paper advertising. Their budget was $6,500 strictly in the local newspapers. There was no web presence, there was no presence anywhere. When I came here, we weren’t spending $6,500 anywhere. It was strictly social media and Facebook. I think our total budget was $500 for the year. It was just about putting flyers in local restaurants, hitting the beach with flyers, and then taking advantage of Facebook. Getting people my age here at the drive in. And it just grew. It was a grassroots, bootstrap marketing to build this audience up. We now have a daily reach on Facebook of over 50,000 people. We have 23,000 fans.

TELL ME ABOUT THE MOMENT YOU DECIDED TO TAKE ON THE DRIVE IN.

I was drunk. I’m not kidding. It was the day of my 21st birthday. It was the Superbowl. My dad was driving by the drive-in and he told me the drive-in was for lease. He said, “You’ve been looking for something to do. Check it out.” And I said, “Yeah! Whatever, let’s do it.” I called the landowners, and they told me everyone wanted to tear this down. They said, “We’re not there yet. We can’t sell this yet. We are retired and can’t physically do what it takes to run the drive in. We need someone like you.” I thought they were going to look at me like I was an idiot. Like, “What do you know about this?” But to them, I knew the right things and I was trying to preserve an icon for the state. We are the oldest drive-in in Maine. We are the oldest in New England, and the second oldest in the country that never ceased operations, open since 1939.  I talked to them and signed the lease. I didn’t have $25,000. I thought I could get a bank loan, but I had no income. So, in about three weeks, I hustled every family member- 500 bucks here, 25 bucks there- most of my family was like “Do it! If you can accomplish this, that would be huge.” It was every long-lost aunt, uncle. I appreciate their trust.

 HAS IT BEEN WORTH THE RISK?

Personally, yes. Financially, no. We are at the point where I have been able to do everything else, but every dollar has to go back into this business. We need to keep it up so we can keep this thing going. My girlfriend and I, we met here. My first day of operations in 2011, she was here with a bunch of friends and we started dating and we’ve been together ever since. Now it’s not just my family, it’s me and her. In November, we sat down and she said, “We can’t do this. We financially can’t put any more in.” It’s been such a big piece of us. I’ve got the family ties, the historic ties and now us.  We’ve sacrificed everything possible. It’s not for lack of effort.  In November, we quietly announced that we couldn’t open and that the landowners would be selling the land. And immediately, we heard from the community. I was sitting at the couch, and I read this one email and I was bawling. My girlfriend walked in the room, saw me, and said, “We’ve got to give this one last shot.”

 

WHAT DID THE EMAIL SAY?  WHAT DID THE COMMUNITY SAY?

It was a mother. She wrote, “Ry, I don’t want to put this on you, but the drive-in saved my family.” And. So. I’m going to cry. It was really hard. I grew up that same way. Everyday, hearing my dad say, “We can’t do the mortgage.” Or praying that the lights wouldn’t get turned off. I said to my girlfriend, “We have to do this, it’s not just for us anymore.” The woman who wrote me, she said her family had moved to Maine and her husband lost his job. They lost everything, and this was the only thing they could do. They had to scrape together money, but it was only $15 for the carful, her whole family with four kids.  The drive-in isn’t the only thing struggling, there’s a lot of people in the community who are struggling.  Asking for money is not something we can do right now. The market that we serve is the people who can’t afford to contribute to a Kickstarter fund. It’s people who are just getting by. It all came down to this email, and we decided to give it another shot. To do everything we can to give it one last summer before we close the doors one last time. And then this Honda project is really the golden ticket opportunity. I think we’ve got as good of a shot as any other.  All day, I go to Sam’s Club or the grocery store, and people tell me they are voting.  I’ve watched every documentary I could, I talked to every drive-in owner I could find. I knew what drive-ins meant to me, but I didn’t know what it meant to the culture.  Historically, after the war, drive-ins and car culture were an escape from life and a sense of freedom. We have a new battle, and it’s not the Germans. It’s money. It is our financial issues. The resurgence of this industry could come because it’s affordable. It’s a place for blue-collared workers to find entertainment outside of the house.

DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL MEMORY OF GOING TO THE DRIVE-INS AS A KID?

I remember a lightening and thunder night. My mom came home from work, and we decided to go to the drive-in. The movie was the Perfect Storm, with George Clooney. It was the most incredible 4-D experience you could get. You’ve got the thunder, lightening, branches falling off the tree and you are watching ships get wrecked. I just remember how everything was gone for my parents. They weren’t thinking about anything else, not worrying, just purely happy. I’ve heard that same story over and over from parents.

 

WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?

For me, it’s preserving this theater.  I feel very fortunate. I have a very full life. I’m grateful to have the job that I have at 23-years-old. I left college two years early. I came here, I did this. I do freelance consulting on how to take businesses online. If we can take a dying drive in and turn it into this, to where national car companies want to feature us. I absolutely love working with businesses and seeing them grow. The mortgage company: it’s my income and you get to see people find their homes. It’s really rewarding.  But, literally, it comes down to saving this theater. What drives me is this.  No matter what, there are so many challenges I love.  In 20 days or so, we’ll know what the fate of this drive-in is. We’ll know when the Honda Contest is over. I am using every hour to make sure that every person in the state of Maine knows this drive-in and what we are trying to accomplish.

TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED OR ARE LEARNING RIGHT NOW IN YOUR LIFE.

For a control freak like me, you’ve got to be flexible and able to adapt, especially in this kind of industry. You’ve got to adapt to weather, you’ve got to adapt to the vast types of demographics that come here. But, everyone here is equal. There’s no class structure, we have everything from janitors to CEOs. We make on the fly decisions. I need to be able to control emotions and adapt and go with the flow. You’ve got to have patience, and that’s one of the hardest parts.

 WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

I think being such an active part of this community, there’s nothing I love more than the moments with strangers. Like today, when I was at Sam’s Club and a pharmacist came up to me after noticing my Saco Drive-In sweatshirt and said,  “Look, you don’t know me, but what you are doing is absolutely amazing. Do you have any flyers I can put up in our break room?” I’ve worked so hard to help something that was so lost become found. The drive-in is not about me, but it’s a piece of me.

 

Find the Saco Drive in on Facebook and at thesacodrivein.com. Vote for the Saco Drive-In for the Drive-In Project projectdrivein.com/#vote_7.

 

 

 

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