Friends Family Theater in Ypsilanti, Michigan with Larry Elie

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How did you get the idea to start a church sponsored free drive-in movie?

The idea is not really new; there was a local donation based church drive-in theater in our area in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I did a one-season drive-in with a smaller 20’ roll-up screen and a 16mm projector back in 1987 at an urban church in Taylor, MI.  But really, the idea started with friends of mine; Terry & Olive Lytle ran a permanent Christian drive-in theater in Devils’ Lake, Michigan from 1952 to 2007 (http://www.christiancinema.com/catalog/newsdesk_info.php?newsdesk_id=699#).  They left a legacy in the international Drive-In Ministries.  I wish we were a fraction as successful.  Read the link; in fifty years they had over 500,000 commitment cards at all of their drive-in’s world-wide combined.  That’s why we at the Ypsilanti Evangelical Friends Church started this ministry.

Why free?

When we started the current drive-in back in 2001, the church decided it should be free.  Really, if we are ministering to people, should we expect them to pay to be ministered to?  Wouldn’t that be something more like a paid service?  Besides, we are in a VERY rural location; the last remaining  crossroads between two gravel roads in our area.

How many volunteers does it take each week?

Outside at the drive-in, the minimum is about four, but ten works a lot better.  We have a 28’ wide roll-up screen that weighs well over 100 lbs.  It takes two or three people to bring it out of storage and put it up and down each week.  It’s set up high above a baseball backstop with an electric winch.  The same two to three people move the aluminum baseball bleachers onto the field for those that don’t choose to stay in their cars.  It takes two (generally the same ones that do the screen) to set up our commercial bounce-house that kids play in until dark. The bounce-house requires a monitor as well. It takes 1 person to set up the portable projection booth, the projector, the digital transmitter and so on.  It takes one person to make popcorn, and preferably another to make lemonade.  We like to have one greeter who directs cars as they enter the church grounds, and another to help park in rows.  We like two or more roamers to mix with the guests, explain where the restrooms are and so on.  If we have extra people, we wash windshields, help with bug spray and so on.  We spray the grounds the day before the film.  Mosquitoes are the enemy.  The more people who help, the easier it is to make the drive-in work.  Setup starts at 7:30 or so and ends at film time which in Michigan is about 9:30 early in July and 8:30 at the end of August.  Then we get to put it all back at midnight or so.  It’s a long night.  We often have different people setting up than putting it away.  It is a lot of work.  That’s why we only do it one night a week, Friday.  We have been told by other Christian theaters that Saturday is the best day, and Sunday is second best.

The indoor theater takes two people; we lower the 25’ screen, and make popcorn.  It’s much more relaxed for the operators, but we only get 1/3 of the crowd of a drive-in.  We rarely get un-churched people inside, in fact, most are from our own church.

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Tell us about your first movie showing.

Well, I had a little experience from ’87, but we still did a full dry-run Thursday, the day before our first public showing.  Practice first is important.  We did door-to-door flyers and put up some posters, but no heavy advertising.  We had a new 2500 lumen projector.  We had a white 24’ wide tarpaulin instead of a real screen, and an AV cart instead of the mobile projection booth, but the setup was basically the same.  Friday, August 9, 2001 we showed our first public film, the Billy Graham (World Wide Pictures) film “The Climb” from a DVD to an audience of about 60 guests plus our workers.  We had about twenty five cars show up.   We started with a “Veggie Tales” short for the kids.  The next week that season (and we only did two weeks that year) was a rain-out; we went inside with the same screen, a different movie and had 99 people.  That season gave us confidence that we could do this, and it told people in the area that it was both for real and was a whole lot of fun.

What has been your biggest challenge?

For the drive-in, it would be Daylight Savings Time.  Starting after dark when it gets dark at 9:30 is not very family friendly is it?  Mosquitoes can be a problem on a warm, calm night, but I think we finally solved that one.  Really, though, advertising, or perhaps salesmanship is a better term for our biggest solvable problem.  We are rural.   Terry & Olive Lytle told me when we started that the 3 most important things are location, location and location.  That’s probably true.  But our Church really is rural, on two gravel roads.  Very bad.  We have had to advertise heavily.  I print 4,000 to 7,000 full color flyers most years and we pass them out at two local parades.  I print 12×36” posters and get them to ten or twelve of the closest churches, and the KOA Campground.  We have a web page for the last 8 years.  Still, every season, and nearly every week, we have people that have not been here before.  The other part of advertising  is the salesmanship of films.  There are probably well over 1,000 people that have been to 1 or more of our drive-in films, yet many only come if we are scheduling something that they know about.  Most of our films are the latest Christian films that we can find.  We preview them all, getting  the best and newest.  That means that even though every film at the drive-in is great, people in the local community often have never heard of them.  An example was I showed Rich Christiano’s film “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” in an early showing in 2008, before Rich had appeared on Christian TV to talk about the film.  We had about 90 people out, all of whom enjoyed the film.  In 2009, we showed the same film again, but still before the DVD was out, and had well over 50 cars and about 160 people.  I was asked by many people how did we get the early film, only to tell them we had shown it a year earlier!  This is the number one problem for all of you film producers out there:  People don’t know about your films!  We play trailers, but only one week before the showing.  We use full color flyers, and posters to local Churches.  All that helps, but it’s just not enough.  I don’t know a cheap effective solution.  The real solution is expensive, and not at all cost effective.  Our biggest week ever was “Soul Surfer” at 180 to 200 people (it’s hard to get a good count in the dark with people coming and going).  It wasn’t the best Christian film I’ve shown, but it was by far the biggest crowd.  Everyone knew about the film, but for Sony it was a wash because it cost them so much to advertise that I’m not sure they did more than break even.  Someone has to advertise.

How has the ministry grown over the years?

Well, it doubled the second year.  We started indoor theater on a 25’ screen in 2003.  We continued to grow through 2009 where we averaged well over 120 at the outdoor theater.  We have declined since.  We had mosquito issues that we have since solved, but you only get one chance to make a first impression.  You would think with the bad economy a free theater would be doing great, but 2012 was the first year with only one week over a hundred in attendance, and that was for “Amazing Love”.   So we were really down last year.  The films are getting better, but people are busy.  I think we have lots of room for growth, and we intend to work on that.  The indoor theater rarely reaches sixty.  Sometimes we are way down in the teens.  It’s pretty discouraging when you pay big dollars for a film and you get a small crowd.  That’s part of the problem with an indoor theater.  That’s why we try to have a ‘draw’, like the commercial bounce-house we now have before all the films.

What have been some of your more popular movies?

At the outdoor theater the top 5 have been “Soul Surfer”, “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry”, “Road to Redemption”, “Facing the Giants” and each and every new “Veggie-Tale”.  Church showings of “Veggie Tale”s are always a month or so before it hits store shelves, which helps us, Big Idea and the local Christian Bookstores.

All the outdoor films are advertised and fully licensed through the producers or one of the marketers like PureFlix, Outreach Media, Church Family Movie Night, Cloud Ten or so on.  At the indoor theater we generally show one Christian feature and one family (secular) feature under our CVLI license (www.CVLI.org).  Often our indoor ‘draw’ film is whatever the latest Disney release is (shown under CVLI so no advertising is allowed).

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What have been some of your best promotional activities to spread the word with the community?

We pass out 4,000-5,000 full color flyers at two local parades.  They are expensive to make.  It takes a dozen or more people to pass them out, and we use a float in the parade too.  We have also passed out a schedule taped to a pack of microwave popcorn to a couple of hundred local houses.  We get season posters to all the local churches.  We put up (and take down) four plywood signs at all the corners around the Church each week too.  We even have a little electronic billboard at the corner running all night for advertising.  We have been in a half-page full color spread in the Ann Arbor News, featured on Christian radio twice (with lots of weekly ads on various Christian radio stations) and in local newspapers local sections many times.  I’ve even done dusk Sky Lantern Launches.  It’s a lot of work, but with our location we have to do it.  I was told by someone that ran a college campus outdoor theater that if we were in a town we would run 1,000+ every week.  I think that’s optimistically high, but they were getting almost 2,000 at ‘Top of the Park’ with a smaller screen and older films only about twenty five miles from us using folding chairs.

What led you to go 3D?

We did it as a draw for the indoor theater.  We have used other draws; we had free pizza and a movie night, but it’s too hard once you get up around eleven large pizzas per night.  Anyway, as far as the 3D, we had done a few red/green glasses films Watch-Night 2004 (yes, we still do a Watch-Night) and they were popular with kids.  We went the full color 3D because I thought it would be a big draw.  It was effective in the beginning.  We were the first large screen full color 3D at a Church anywhere, starting Oct. 22, 2010.  I had forty-five pair of Real 3D glasses and ran out.  I now keep a hundred pair, but have not used more than sixty at a time as some people just don’t wear them.  It was a challenge to do 3D; you could not buy a complete system at the time.  The screen is very expensive, and you need a good computer too.  We use Tri-Def for the software.  We only do 3D inside, because we have to have a REAL 3D screen, polarizing glasses and two projectors.  Car windows would ruin the effect.  The first films were shown under the CVLI license, so we couldn’t advertise the particular film, just that it would be in Real 3D.

What 3D movies have you shown?

“How to Train Your Dragon 3D” was the first film we showed in 3D.  We had a 2D Christian cartoon first; a “Theo”.  We have since shown a lot of 3D Disney using the CVLI license.  Others like “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, “Kung Fu Panda”, and the last Narnia film were popular too.  We have shown the only 2 real 3D Christian features (so far) as well; “Lion of Judah” and “Pray 3D”.  We probably had the only public showing of either of those films in 3D.  Some people don’t like 3D, but kids do.  We run a Family Theater, so we won’t show a lot of 3D films people ask for, like “Avengers”.

What has been the impact of Friends Family Theater on Ypsilanti?

Our address is Ypsilanti, but we are almost seven miles south of town.  I think we have had over 1,000 people come to one or more films.  Ypsilanti city is less that 20,000, with about that many in the township.  That 1,000 represents a lot more people than have ever showed up at the church doors at a small church like ours.  It’s an outreach, and evangelism.  Many people recognize the church because of the drive-in, so it’s a draw to the church as well.  We are not a large church.  The church only runs about a hundred right now (location again!).  Our influence is far-far larger than it should be for a church of our size.  We often have more visitors to the drive-in than the attendance at the church that week.  Over 90% of the attendees to the drive-in are not from out church.  That’s real community outreach.

What is your vision for the future of Friends Family Theater?

We would love to see people come to Christ every week.  I guess that’s not realistic because although all the drive-in films are Christian, they are not all evangelistic.  We want to involve evangelistic teams from area churches more too; this should be a community outreach.  We are planning on, and on the lookout for, a much bigger screen; 45 to 60’ wide, perhaps even for this summer.  We have a bright enough projector for that big of a screen now.  We would move off the ball diamond, which is sometimes used right up to show time now, and that would help; player’s families would be interested.  I would love to do Fridays AND Saturdays too; word of mouth from Friday would help attendance for a Saturday drive-in.  That would be more work, and we’ve tried a couple of Saturdays that didn’t do well.  Bad location hits again.  If they ever pave one of our roads I would LOVE to do a drive-in film festival.  I’ve done this so long that I know a lot of people in the field, so I think we could make it work.  As it is now, with our ‘rural charm’ we would have to do the ‘Country Christian Family Film Festival’ or something like that.  We could handle 200 cars with a bigger screen.  I would love to do a late August, one-week drive-in film festival, screening a whole lot of films every night, with awards at the end.  We have done live video on the big-screen, so we could really make this work.  How’s that for a vision?  A suburban church with a lot of space would be so much easier!

Anything else?

Sure.  Anyone wanting to do this needs to know that this ministry averages a little over $3,000 per year for operation, not counting screens or projectors and so on.  It would cost more for licensing at a bigger church.  One of our biggest costs is all the full color flyers we print for the season.  Lots of churches spend that much on outreach already.  It’s actually lower than when we started, probably due to the recession.  We think it’s worth it.  We have shown about 110 drive-in features in the last eleven years, all Christian.  At the indoor theater we have shown about 600 features to date, about half of which were Christian.  We rarely repeat a film.  We never charge.  Even the popcorn is always free, and we use about 100 lbs of popcorn per summer.  We never ask for donations, but we don’t turn them down anymore.  Even though the drive-in only runs eight or nine weeks each year, it probably ministers to as many people as the indoor theater does in the other ten months.  Let me give some reasons why.  The drive-in is not threatening to non-Christians.  They feel ‘safe’ in their cars.  If they don’t like something on the screen they can just drive off.  On occasion we have had visitors that were so drunk that I had to help them find their car after they got their popcorn (not the driver PTL!).  I’ve had people ask for marriage counseling during the film (and I’m not the Pastor!).  I’ve had Moslem’s in full burka come to an evangelical Christian film… and return again the next week!  Try that at your evangelistic meeting!  We have had weeks with pouring rain when we had to move inside, yet I’ve had people drive up to me, roll down the window and ask if we can wait to see if the rain will stop so ‘the kids can see the movie’.  When I explain that we are having the film inside, they tell me they can never come in a church and drive away—with the kids crying.  We minister to people that will never darken the door of a church, unless God intervenes.  We show films that really reach for heart strings; I’ve seen pretty tough people hiding tears.  We have busses and vans from other churches join us for fellowship, which is great!  We’ve even had someone dropped off by a taxi.  Often people call friends during the early part of the film who show up when there’s only 10 minutes left.  How often do you see that at an evangelistic meeting?  In the country?  Yep, we think it’s worth it.  God’s Word will not return onto Him void… it does accomplish His purpose… Isn’t that the point?

I believe in this strongly enough that in this that I am willing to help others start this sort of ministry.  I would love for there to be 1,000 theaters like this, and better ones, all around the US and Canada.

To learn more about Friends Family Theater, visit the website at http://www.friendsfamilydrivein.com .

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4 responses to “Friends Family Theater in Ypsilanti, Michigan with Larry Elie

  1. Great support of families and Christian film-makers. Many Christians complain about the “secular media” but then do not support Christian media. I hope this encourages more of us to put our money (and effort, time…) where our mouth is and support wholesome, fun entertainment.

    Like

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