Drive-In Disciple: John Vincent helps preserve the outdoor movie experience

Cinemas Features

John Vincent is known for his love of drive-in theatres. He serves as president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA) and is majority owner and operator of the Wellfleet Drive-In in South Wellfleet, Massachusetts, as well as the indoor Wellfleet Cinema 4 and the Wellfleet Dairy Bar & Grill restaurant. John has earned admiration from his peers in the industry as a mentor and leader for those who still offer the outdoor cinema entertainment package. He has led the charge of protecting the family style of summer attractions for the big screen, with a charismatic devotion to family values and the movie experience.

John was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and relocated to Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his parents. He has been an integral part of the Wellfleet community ever since. His career path in the exhibition industry began in 1987 at age 18, when he was employed as a ticket taker at the Wellfleet Drive-In. After a stint as a U.S. Marine in Desert Storm, he returned to the drive-in due to his love of the business. He was mentored by Don Jentz, owner of Wellfleet Drive-In, and eventually became a vested partner with his dear friend. He spent many years with another devoted colleague, Eleanor Hazen, who guided him along the way. These two individuals instilled the devotion and values of the outdoor movie experience that John displays today and he credits them for his dedication to the business.

John is partly driven by his love of technology, but more by his appreciation of people and getting them to smile. “I love making people happy” is the answer you will get when you ask what motivates him.

With an Associate’s degree in electronics, John believes that digital implementation has positively impacted the drive-in more than the indoor cinema. “The improvements that digital has brought to the drive-in presentation exceed what 35mm film was capable of. We now can direct more light on the screen.”

In his role as president of UDITOA, his philosophy remains the same. “Whatever we can do to enhance the movie experience helps the studios, and in helping the studios we get more high-quality pictures. And the higher the quality of the product, the more movies are made. Having more product available to us means more success possible for drive-ins and theatres.”

John notes that his entry into the drive-in business was not so welcome. “The year I started, 1987, was possibly the worst summer in drive-in history. I think the best picture we received that year was Superman 4. Drive-ins began to see immense competition from the construction of multiplexes and the studios were distributing more film to the indoor cinemas than the outdoor exhibitors, making it hard to keep pace.”

From the late 1950s through today, the number of drive-ins has dropped from approximately 2,000 to roughly 400 in the U.S. Drive-ins have faced significant challenges in keeping pace with indoor cinemas, yet somehow John Vincent maintains his composure and stature in this channel of exhibition. He believes that drive-ins are now well positioned as competitive ventures, since most are typically 100 miles apart, which gives each owner a clear presence as the only option for outdoor viewing.

The biggest challenges for drive-in operators, as John sees it, are the seasonality of the business, lack of reinvestment by too many drive-in owners, and the availability of product. “Drive-ins took a huge hit in the late ’80s but bounced back in the ’90s with films such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jurassic Park.

John points out that drive-ins have a major asset for Millennials that indoor theatres do not offer: cellphone access! “People can sit in their cars and text, talk and share while not interfering with other patrons. Studies also show that Millennials like watching movies in groups sitting on a blanket and spreading out, which gives the drive-in another distinct advantage over indoor cinemas.”

Interestingly, John does preside over a four-screen theatre on the same property as his drive-in and owns a fast, casual restaurant, Wellfleet Dairy Bar & Grill. He is gradually bringing new “bar and grill” menu options to his theatre operations.        

John loves the water and spends his free time boating. As for travel, “I would love to visit Australia and see the drive-ins there! There is something amazing about what they do in Australia.”

I was surprised to learn John’s favorite movie of all time is Superman (the original), which made a lasting impression on him—somehow I was expecting Jaws, as he’s from Cape Cod. I was equally astounded when told his favorite book is The Concessions Class, with a few condiments. Really!

John shares the drive-in life with his wife Tracie and their two children, Aiden and Vanessa. No doubt they’ve spent many a night under the stars together, basking in that special movie experience only a drive-in can offer.