The classic America Drive-In has been ingrained in the hearts and minds of generations of movie-goers, ever since the golden age of the drive-ins in the 1950s and 60s. Once numbering over 4,000 locations, the drive-in now stands at just over 300 operators, doting the landscape with a slice of nostalgia that makes people think of B-Movies, buttery popcorn, and the night sky.
Director April Wright’s affinity for the drive-in brought her back to the subject with her new documentary, Back to the Drive-In. Unlike her original historical documentary, Going Attractions, her new film is about the modern state of the the drive-in theater, examining theaters from coast to coast and the stories and day-to-day aspects of running an entertainment venue from a bygone era. We discussed the current state of the drive-in (especially post-Pandemic) and Wright’s new film in this exclusive interview.
Your film, Back to the Drive-In, showcases a number of different theaters from across the country and how they operate on a nightly and weekly basis, and the various typical and atypical issues they face. Did that change during the pandemic or was it a boon for drive-ins?
April Wright: Not completely. It was described that way in the press, but it wasn’t the huge windfall that was advertised. It did help some locations, but many had to operate under new restrictions and capacity limits. A lot of the concession stands were shut down, they had to do extra cleaning and enforce mask wearing, which also led to higher operating costs.
Strangely, a lot of the press about people returning to the drive-ins scared some people away, due to fears of overcrowding. Most of the owners that I spoke to in the film said that they actually made less than they would have in a regular year.
At the height of America’s romance with the drive-in theater, it was all about teen customers. It now appears that families are the new lifeblood of the drive-in, correct?
Wright: Totally. Teenagers had their heyday at the drive-ins in the sixties and early seventies. Like you see in a film like Grease, they would go there on dates and such. Originally, drive-ins were created as a form of family entertainment, and they were built and designed for families, and now we are back to that model and audience.
At this point, what is the balance between vintage movies and new product in terms of they type of content that drive-ins are screening?
Wright: While some are still showing classics, the modern, first-run films are the feature attractions. During the height of the Pandemic, the classics kept the drive-ins alive. Other than a few IFC or A24 films, there were hardly any new movies being released, so drive-ins had no choice but to show older content.
Other than a few drive-ins that might program a retro night, like the Greenville theater in Back to the Drive-In, with theming, cosplay, specialty cocktails, etc., the theaters are primarily showing new films. It is also harder now to access the classics, since a lot are kept in the Disney Vault, including 20th Century Fox films, so there isn’t as much available as there once was, especially during the Pandemic.
After watching your film, it is clear that each location has a different culture, traditions, climate, and most important, varying degrees of success and solvency.
Wright: I tried to be as diverse as possible with the locations in the film. I selected some that were brand new and some that had been in a family for two or three generations, some with multiple screens and some that were single screens, and ones that had different types of programming.
Despite their differences, they all deal with the same types of problems and they are more alike than they are different. When those owners that appeared in the film watched the documentary, they said “I had no idea that people who run drive-ins had the same problems I do.”
Is there a support system or community for drive-in owners?
Wright: There is a United Drive-In Theater Owners Association that meets every year, which was only started in 1999. They are able to help with the conversion to digital projectors and work together to help each other. Some owners are more isolated and don’t have the time to check out how other theaters run because they are always open at the same time.
It reminds me of my father’s local roller rink business. He didn’t have the time to consider what other owners were doing; he was focused on catering to his consumer base and local customers. In that way, the film goes beyond drive-ins and is about what it is like being a small business owner right now.
One of the owners who stood out to me in the film was D. Edward Vogel from Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore, especially his attention to detail and comprehensive rules.
Wright: Yes, he is a stickler for his rules. When I was editing the film, I realized that each drive-in had its own subplot, whether it was the fog on Cape Cod, or Vogel with all of his rules. His father was a famous drive-in theater designer and architect, so he has a real devotion to preserving the integrity of the experience. He has a very clear vision of the way it is supposed to be at a drive-in and when we visited his offices and storage areas, he has so much stuff piled everywhere that represented the history of the drive-in.
One of the heart-breaking moments in the film was when the one patron was informed that the famous Mission Tiki outside of Los Angeles was sold and will soon close. You could tell how much the place meant to him.
Wright: Yes, that was the first time he was hearing the news. It became a part of his normal routine during Covid and he associated the Tiki as an escape from reality. The Tiki is the only drive-in theater left in the Los Angeles area and was sold in 2019, so it is on borrowed time.
This is unfortunately happening to a lot of drive-ins, who are either being offered a lot of money for their land, or for those who don’t own the land, their lease agreements are becoming too expensive.
What type of future do you think the American drive-in has?
Wright: The entire film exhibition industry has changed since the Pandemic, and it gave movie studios a chance to try some things that they were looking for an opportunity to try such as same-day streaming of new films. I do think that they have realized that having a first run theater audience helps everything down the road on all the other platforms.
The drive-in always reinvents itself and has a built in novelty, and in that regard, may have an advantage over traditional movie theaters. My first film about the drive-in, Going Attractions, was about the history of the drive-in, and with Back to the Drive-In, I wanted to focus on the people that run them and keep them alive. They are easy to take for granted, and we often don’t see the amount of work it takes to keep them in business, starting work at 2:00-3:00 pm and finishing the shift at 2:00-3:00 am; it is no easy task.
Back to the Drive-In is currently playing at a number of drive-in theaters across the country and will debut in traditional theaters on August 12 (and you can follow April Wright on twitter for more information about showtimes and screenings). Stay tuned to Conskipper for more updates on VOD access in the near future.