Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Back to the Drive-In

Drive-ins were widely considered the big winner of Xi’s pandemic, because they were the only theaters open during the shutdown—but not so fast, mister. It turns out they also suffered from the same supply chain issues and staffing woes that affected every other company. Often, opportunity turned into frustration, but drive-in proprietors carried on. Writer-director-everything-else April Wright follows eight drive-ins as they plug away amid the pandemic’s aftermath in Back to the Drive-In, which releases today on VOD.

If you have seen the documentary
At the Drive-In about the Mahoning Drive-In in Pennsylvania, you will be familiar with the general state of drive-in business. Converting to digital was a challenge for most, if not all, but it was necessary to keep screening the latest Hollywood studio tent-poles. Some, like Bengie’s Drive-In still largely feature new releases, except during the pandemic shutdown, when they had to rely on older films.

However, many drive-ins have found success with repertory programming. After all, what sounds like more fun to watch on a hot summer night, a timeless favorite like
Jaws or Jurassic Park or the next Marvel product, carefully sanitized for the Chinese market? In fact, the Greenville Drive-In really embraces the retro rep spirit, designing special cookies and cocktails to accompany films like The Great Lebowski (obviously, they were serving White Russians that night).

All the featured drive-ins share a number of problems, like supply chain issues. Everyone seems to have problems stocking staple items like popcorn cups. Of course, they also complain about the cost of doing business with the studios. However, the Wellfleet Drive-In on Cape Cod must contend with heavy fog that is unique to their location.

One of the cool things about Wright’s film is seeing the new Drive-Ins spring up, like the Field of Dreams Drive-In the owners literally build in their Ohio back yard. The owner-architects of the Quasar Drive-In in Nebraska emphasized nostalgia in their design, incorporating vintage equipment acquired from shuttered drive-ins around the country. Good luck to them both.

It is a tough business, but it really brings back fond memories for both customers and staff, especially the manager of Fort-Worth’s Coyote Drive-In, who associates the Drive-In experience with his childhood and late mother. Sadly, one of the featured drive-ins, the Mission Tiki, sold out to a tech company around the time of filming, because the offer was too rich to refuse. The rest of the drive-ins could definitely use your business if you are ever driving through town—especially the Harvest Moon in Central Illinois, which rather miraculously survived a full flooding shortly after Wright filmed their segments.

There is definitely something appealingly old school about drive-ins, which comes through during the film. A lot of these drive-ins are also showing better films than the new junk at the multiplexes. Wright’s editing gets a bit repetitive, but it serves as an affectionate PSA for an under-appreciated industry and slice of Americana. Recommended for movie lovers,
Back at the Drive-In releases today (3/14) on VOD.