MOVIE OF THE WEEK March 10, 2023 – BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN
Watching April Wright’s earnest, affectionate documentary Back to the Drive-In, one thing becomes very clear: Nobody gets into the drive-in business because it’s an easy gig or a cash cow. This is a labor of love, a passion project for people who adore movies, who believe in the spirit of community that comes with watching movies with other people who adore movies, and who get a kick out of kitsch, nostalgia, and the perfect movie snack.
Even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when public health regulations and social distancing guidelines led to a surge in drive-in attendance for the first time in decades, theater owners weren’t rolling in dough (unless you’re talking about funnel cake dough, of course). But the rediscovery of the drive-in was still a feel-good story during a time of extreme fear and worry, and Wright’s film makes it clear how meaningful that resurgence was to the hardworking folks selling tickets and slinging popcorn and nachos.
To make the film, Wright visited drive-ins all over the United States — including L.A’s Mission Tiki, the Field of Dreams Drive-In in Ohio, and the Wellfleet in Cape Cod — interviewing their owners and capturing their stories. For many, running a drive-in is a family affair, with multiple generations involved in everything from programming to promotions. As the COVID-fueled crowds ebb, they wonder what the future holds and try to figure out how to keep people coming back to this affordable, accessible night at the movies.
Wright is no stranger to drive-ins — this is her second feature documentary about drive-ins, following 2013’s Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie — and it’s obvious that her heart is with the passionate movie lovers she interviews for the film. As they talk to her frankly about their challenges and triumphs, their hopes and worries, it’s impossible not to root for them to succeed and to keep this most American of institutions alive and thriving. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: April Wright’s documentary is neither a history of the drive-in nor an investigation into its cultural place in American life. Instead, she focuses on the here and now, taking the temperature of a business that has appeared on the blink of oblivion for decades but somehow keeps finds a way to keep going. She narrows her lens even further, confining her film to mom-and-pop operations – you would never know it from the film, but there are still corporate players in the market – and taking the temperature of their businesses as the US recovers from COVID. The pandemic was good for business with drive-ins offering the only non-televised movie options, albeit one confined to ancient product in place of non-existent new releases. But as life gets back to normal, can the drive-ins thrive? The theater owners Wright visits certainly hope so as they deal with studio capriciousness (and habit of taking the lion’s share of the box office), weather events, ornery customers, and myriad other challenges to their businesses. What emerges are a group of people who may approach their occupations in different ways but are united by their love (and sometimes nostalgia) for drive-ins and for movies. It’s not a job but a way of life to these people, and their enthusiasm shines through in Wright’s warm storytelling.
Nell Minow: This is less a story about drive-ins or even movies than it is about people who are passionate about their communities, and about the way they face unprecedented challenges with dedication and resilience. Filmed with a quiet and evocative sense of place and respect for its subjects, the movie shows us the undersung heroes who bring us together, their stories as compelling as the ones on their outdoor screens.
Leslie Combemale There’s no question that writer/director April Wright loves the drive-in. She really shows the best and the worst of what proprietors committed to presenting films on those classic outdoor screens have had to contend with during and ‘since the pandemic’. Getting to know these folks is the best part of the film. The owners of one theater make cookies by hand that celebrate whatever is playing on the big screen. White Russians are the special during a screening of The Big Lebowski. They’re so happy to be alive and doing what they love, that it’s, you’ll excuse the expression, ‘infectious’. (Too soon?) Wright interviews these people from off-screen, and they obviously trust her, as her subjects speak comfortably and candidly on-camera. If the goal of this doc was to get more people back to the drive-in, mission accomplished. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Back to the Drive-In is a documentary deep dive into a subject we love: watching movies. More specifically, it’s about how movie lovers flocked to their local drive-in cinemas during the pandemic — to get out of the house and escape into an enjoyable big screen scenario. Documentary filmmaker April Wright, who seems somewhat obsessed with drive-ins (this is the second documentary she’s made about them), takes us with her on a transcontinental tour of iconic family-owned drive-ins, showing her cadre of viewers the variety in architecture, amenities and programming nationwide. In on camera interviews, Wright chronicles how dedicated drive-in theater owners, ticket takers and popcorn makers have responded to the huge uptick in attendance. Landmark drive-ins on the brink of bankruptcy have bounced back into the black. But on a serious note, what will happen, questions Wright, to the pandemic-driven drive-in renaissance in a post-pandemic world when ‘hard top’ theaters are fully reopened and movie lovers decide to leave their not-so-comfy autos’ driver and shotgun seats to sit in indoors plush posh seats? See what the drive-in entrepreneurs and devotees have to say about that.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Back to the Drive-In is filmmaker April Wright’s bittersweet documentary about the state of drive-in theaters (most of which are small family-run businesses) across the country, particularly after their resurgence during the pandemic. My family visited drive-ins all over the northeast and mid-atlantic in 2020 and 2021, and our local drive-in — Bengies outside Baltimore, Md. — was one of the drive-ins featured. We meet owners and employees who’ve had to adapt and adjust to stay open as the state of theatrical releases, and the post-pandemic world — has changed dramatically. Drive-ins may not go the distance, but they embody nostalgia that still means something to families and movie-goers (and clearly Wright herself). The documentary clearly wants audiences to support their local drive-in and to share in the communal experience.
Loren King Anyone who grew up in the ‘60s or ‘70s when piling into a car for a night at the local drive-in was commonplace will find the documentary Back to the Drive-In irresistible. It may be steeped in nostalgia for a once-thriving but rapidly fading form of moviegoing but April Wright’s film isn’t just a look back; she already did that with 2013’s Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie. This time around, Wright looks at several drive-in theater proprietors and their distinct drive-ins in all parts of the country, from Texas to Cape Cod. They’re all trying with varying degrees of success to hold on to their businesses and their passion for it. Each owner recounts the boom months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when families flocked to drive-ins as the only safe place to gather, and how it has since cooled. But each owner is determined to hang on and preserve something they care deeply about. It’s hard not to root for them and just as impossible not to want to get in the car and head for the closest big, open-air screen — no matter what’s playing.
Liz Whittemore As a child of the 80s, some of my first movie-viewing experiences happened in the back of my Mom’s wood-paneled station wagon. With snacks procured and a giant speaker attached to the car door, a kid-friendly film began at sundown, and a “grownup” movie would follow long after we had passed out. It was an adventure and a chance for Mom and Dad to have a date night without hiring a babysitter. Documentary filmmaker April Wright takes us on a tour of eight drive-in establishments across the US and introduces us to the families who run them. Each has a bit of magic. Each is owned by people who love what they do, despite the cost, the weather, and the crowds that might leave them behind. Back to the Drive-In is the perfect nostalgic hug for those of a certain age. For younger audiences or anyone who missed out on the experience, it is a peek into a golden age of community gathering, a study of small business owners in a “post-covid” era, and a portrait of humanity through the ups and downs of cinematic passion.
Cate Marquis When Covid hit in 2020, people were forced to socially isolate and most entertainment venues shut-down. But there was one big exception: drive-in movies, which enjoyed a sudden surge in popularity. In her affectionate documentary, Back to the Drive-In, filmmaker April Wright spans the country to connect with drive-in theater owners, to check in with them about out how their theaters did during the pandemic surge and now post-pandemic, exploring the good and the bad of both, from no new movies and supply chain issues, to customers giddy just to get out, and then digs deeper into the future of drive-ins. Wright finds a surprising variety of currently-operating drive-ins – not just those in operation since the 1950s, but others recently revived and some even newly-built. The drive-ins are all unique, with the different business models from traditional current action and horror with hot dogs and burgers fare, to retro and cult-films with themed cocktails and a party vibe, to offering live music concerts before the movie and other mixes of movies and other entertainment. But mostly, Wright focuses on the people, the owners and the employees who love drive-ins, and in the process, complete charms us with this magical world of movies under the stars and the people who love it.
Title: Back to the Drive-In
Directors: April Wright
Release Date: March 10. 2023
Running Time: 109 minutes
Screenwriters Apri; Wright (documentary)
Distribution Company: Uncork’d
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
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Edited by Jennifer Merin