BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN (2023, doc)

March 14, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. As one who spent many evenings in my childhood and teen years lounging in a vehicle as the clunky metal speaker hung from the car window crackling with the dialogue and sound effects from that night’s movie, I was anxious for a dose of the nostalgia that April Wright’s documentary was sure to inspire. However, rather than a feel-good flashback to better days, Ms. Wright deals head-on with the challenges faced by those devoted few brave souls keeping the drive-in tradition alive.

Covering eleven theaters across eight states, the film allows the owners to use their own words in describing the difficulties in running a drive-in. We hear that the pandemic was a boon for business at many of these venues, as people were desperate to get out of the house for entertainment, yet needed to maintain the required social distancing. Drive-ins became the perfect family outing, and a first-time experience for so many (especially kids).

But will the ‘drive-in renaissance’ endure? That’s really the question at hand, and after two hours of listening to owners bemoan the difficulties, it’s hard to hold out much hope. To ensure we get the full picture, the visited drive-ins cover Texas, Ohio, Nebraska, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California. They cover such diverse areas as Cape Cod, rural Texas, the Midwest, and San Bernadino County in California. The oldest was founded in 1952 (and purchased in 1984), while the newest was opened as the pandemic began. Most are family businesses, some handed down from previous generations.

So who wouldn’t love to run a theater in the great outdoors where families come to spend time together, kids play, snacks are encouraged, and customers are treated to the joy of movie watching – usually a double feature? Consistently we heard the same issues from each of the owners and manager: proper staffing is nearly impossible, the full parking lots have openings since the pandemic has eased, the availability of first run movies has been negatively impacted by streaming services, maintenance of equipment is always difficult, and too many customers are downright rude these days. If that’s not enough, the Cape Cod theater deals with “the F-word” … no, not that one. Instead, it’s the weather – specifically “og” (they refuse to pronounce the F). Yep, poor weather causes visibility issues from inside a vehicle, so even Mother Nature can be an adversary.

Sure, I was often jealous of the families that got to flip down the tailgate on their station wagon or pickup truck, but this movie doesn’t focus on the thrill of watching a double feature of THE BIG LEBOWSKI and COOL HAND LUKE (as one of the massive neon marquees advertised). This is about the fading culture of drive-ins. We learn one of the profiled owners has already sold off his theater to a land developer for more than his revenue would be for the next 25 years! While watching, I kept thinking that the piano music was intrusive and the editing was a bit choppy, but I was left with the feeling of a Greek tragedy … nice folks sadly losing a grip on the last bit of rope holding up an industry. Was it, as one owner says, “nice while it lasted”, or is there still hope that future generations will get to hop out of the car and head to the concession stand during intermission?

On digital and On Demand (Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu) beginning March 14, 2023