October 7, 2022
'Back to the Drive-In' Explores What It's Like to Run Outdoor Theaters

Back to the Drive-In” is filmmaker April Wright’s second documentary about drive-ins, following 2017’s “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie,” but she’s not milking a good thing with a rehash of the definitive first film. Rather than again explore the overall rise and fall and semi-rise of the phenomenon, in this terrific sequel, she’s looking at the big picture (drive-in screens are huge, in case you haven’t been) but also the smaller one, painting a series of portraits of 11 different ozoners across the U.S. It’s a warm and funny and even touching tribute to the fans and especially the ma-and-pa owner-operators who keep al-fresco film alive.

Locations range from the Mission Tiki, a popularly rediscovered pandemic in the Los Angeles area, to the sometimes fog-enshrouded Wellfleet, which bills itself as the premiere family entertainment destination on Cape Cod. In-between are locations as distinct as Benjie’s, a ‘60s-era legend in its own right with a mammoth, Googie-ish marquee in the Baltimore area, to the Field of Dreams Drive-In, a full-service theater that a guy built literally in his very, very roomy back yard in rural Ohio.

Wright’s film is playing at a number of indie theaters across the country this week and/or next. (That includes a Wednesday night showing at the Laemmle in North Hollywood, with retro guru Charles Phoenix conducting the Q&A. It will further screen at a future date at Hollywood’s Arena Cinelounge. Find more info here.) It’ll be available for home viewing — in your backyard? — later in the year. Variety talked all things drive-in this week with the South Bay-based director, whose previous docs include “Stuntwoman” and a feature-length look at vintage movie houses.

Those of us who love drive-ins tend to really love the elements that make them different from indoor theaters, one of which is, literally, the elements. You really get a sense from this movie of the way that weather can form a natural proscenium for the big screen as the sun goes down. The prospect of rain can be a concern… once you get out of the Southwest, anyway. And we see in the film how much more concerned the operators are about weather than the patrons are.

Exactly. Is there lightning? I showed at least a couple of drive-ins with their weather trackers up, and, they watched those all day, all night, to see where’s the weather at. But as you know, you can see a movie at the drive-in in the rain or in the snow or whatever — people do that all the time. It doesn’t have to scare you away.

We also always talk about how, for certain movies, it can even be a bonus — you know, if you’re seeing “Jaws” and it’s foggy, or if you’re seeing a horror film and it’s raining, or even if you’re just at a drive-in in clear weather and there’s some woods a few feet away from you while you’re watching a horror movie and you’re outside, you feel more vulnerable. So there’s just so many different ways where we say a drive-in can be a 4D experience, because the environment around you can make the movie feel different.

The film keeps coming back to you hanging with the owner of the Wellfleet Drive-In in New England, which just about a block away from the ocean, and the fog is rolling in as it starts to get dark. It starts out light, and he’s thinking it’ll be OK, because the “Space Jam” sequel he’s showing is a pretty bright film. At some point almost becomes a suspense movie.

Exactly. That’s the nail-biter in the film. He’s trying to be optimistic and not be nervous, but you can tell how nervous. And finally, at the end he’s like, “OK, I can finally say this is the worst fog I’ve had in three years.”

He’s superstitious about anyone on his staff saying “fog”; they have to call it “the F-word.”

And then he keeps saying it. He’s like, “I just broke my own rule.”

This is your second documentary on drive-ins, but it’s so different from the last. It’s really focused in on the owner-operators, and the peculiar problems and joys they face in such an unusual occupation, and letting us see their distinct personalities.That was exactly the intention. The first film was a very thorough history of drive-ins, where I kind of felt like we covered everything up until present. That’s why I wanted with the second movie to really go deeper with the owners, because I can see how hard they work to keep ’em alive. I think, especially after COVID, everybody thought drive-is are just thriving and doing really well, and I knew that they were still having a hard time. I just wanted to show what they really do, so people would have a little more appreciation. Some people will say each drive-in is very unique because of the people who run it, that the drive-in itself reflects the owner, which is true, I think.

How much of the movie would you say is a snapshot of a moment in time about small businesses coming out of the pandemic, versus a general overview of how drive-ins have operated historically?

I had actually gone to the drive-in owners’ convention in Orlando in February of 2020 before the pandemic, and I told them I wanted to make this movie. I was going do the follow-up anyway, but we were also talking about: How can we draw attention to drive-ins? Brad Pitt had just won the Oscar for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and in his Oscar speech, he talked about going to drive-ins growing up. [Pitt’s character also lives next door to the Van Nuys Drive-in in the Quentin Tarantino film.] So we’re like, okay, can we leverage that some way? Should we hire a PR firm? They were trying to figure out all the ways to get attention. Then March 2020 hits and they get this national worldwide attention. They got their wish, not the way you would expect.

It changed how I wanted to shoot the film, because originally I was only going to focus on three drive-ins really in-depth. But with the pandemic, I thought I needed to show a broader cross section of how it was affecting them, so that’s why I went up to 11. Originally I chose three in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, because there were three very different examples — with the Brazos, the Coyote and the Galaxy — and I wanted to contrast what you could find even in one little area. I thought their points of view would be different. But as soon as I got through like the third or fourth drive in, it was like, it doesn’t matter if they’re old or new, or have seven screens or one screen. They’re all telling me the same things, like how they were all having trouble with customers being more entitled and causing trouble, coming out of the pandemic; a lot of ’em had never had that before. They were all having the supply chain problems. They were all having the movie content problems. No matter how big or old or where they were located, most of them were facing the same issues, and that was super interesting to me.

There are a lot of drone shots, which makes shooting on location inherently cinematic, getting those vast landscapes in, both within the drive-in lot and what’s behind it on the horizon. Shooting a huge drive-in lot from the ground can be tough, getting a sense of the scope of it in.

I became a pretty good drone pilot and did all that myself. When I was at a meeting of the Drive-In Owners Association in February 2020 and the owners said, “Why do you wanna make another film on this topic?,” I told him “Because now there’s drones!” And I half meant it as a joke, but I was also serious. Because when I made “Going Attractions,” they weren’t readily available, and so I knew I could capture the drive-ins from above and really see how they feel in a different way than I could in the first film. That was actually a huge piece of wanting to make this second one for me, to be honest.

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Director April Wright

Once you decided to focus on 11 drive-ins instead of three, were you looking for breadth and variety between them, even with certain commonalities?

Yeah, exactly. I mean, even when you’re making a documentary, it is casting, in a way. I wanted to just have as much diversity as I could. It’s locations that are geographically different. Ones that had been open since the ‘40s, and ones like the Quasar that had just opened three weeks before I got there. Ones like the Transit and the Galaxy that have six or seven screens, that are all huge, or ones like the Brazos that have their single original screen, which is extremely rare. Famous ones like Benjie’s. Ones that are female owned — the Brazos is unique in that way. I wanted to show a couple that serve alcohol, like the Coyote and the Greenville. Drive-ins where the same people have owned them for a long time, or ones like the Harvest Moon; their storyline is kind of about the expanding family, because the two sons took it over from their dad who retired year before last, and then now one has a new baby and one has a new wife, and they’re both getting sucked up into the drive-in world, immediately.

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Graxos Drive-In in Texas
Courtesy April Wright

It’s easy to become jealous and want to move to the Catskills just to attend the Greenville. They do solely revival programming, with drinks and homemade snacks themed to the main feature, like on the night you visit and they’re showing “The Big Lebowski.”

I know. Everybody who watches the movie, they’re like, “I want a White Russian and a Dude cookie!” I’m like, “Yeah, you do!”

These are all very individual places. The exception — which you don’t have in the film — is the Syufy theaters, which all have projection going out to multple screens from atop a circular snack bar, which is a pretty common thing, but then these kind of groovy arc-covered entrance lanes that are immediately indentifiable and marked them as a chain.

But that’s still family-owned. The Syufy family renamed the chain West Wind, but they were originally built and they’re still owned by the same family. All drive-ins pretty much are family-owned. Even if they have multiple locations, they’re still a family business, which is also something most people don’t realize.

The last drive-in I could think of that was operated by a major chain was the Vineland here in L.A. County in the City of Industry, which is still owned by Pacific. Since they have gotten rid of all their other theaters to focus on being a real estate concert, it’s ironic that the one theater they appear to have left after shutting down the Dome and everything else is a drive-in. Which is how they started.

Yeah. Except I was told that whoever has been leasing it to run the swap meet, they’re doing the movies now, too. They’ve been showing a lot of indie stuff, and it makes me concerned about what the future might hold, since the programming has changed so much since the swap meet people are apparently running it. I’m keeping an eye on it.

I think we should get together and take it over and program it like the Greenville — run “The Big Lebowski” and get some Dude cookies in there and some White Russians!

For whatever L.A. people may be reading this, we do have more predictable big-studio bookings at the Mission Tiki, which is one of your 11 theaters in the documentary. That really got discovered throughout the greater L.A. area during the pandemic. It may not be long for this world, since we know the property it sits on was sold long before the pandemic, but it’s a treasure while we have it.

Yeah, they actually did do pretty good, and part of it is because, in Montclair, they’re just outside of L.A. and so they didn’t have the same shutdown rules, so he was able to keep it going the whole time, which made a big difference. Then he also started doing really creative programming. He did a lot of Amazon premieres [as well as the American Cinematheque’s Beyond Fest], and just really embraced some of the horror and thriller films, which I would say drive-ins over the last decade had gone away from in favor of family programming. The owner was really surprised in the summer and not just the fall to be doing so well with some of these horror and thrillers. I think he had some of the pandemic films, like “Becky,” that were on streamers at the same time, and he told me he really did do good business with those.

I haven’t heard anything lately about the exact timeline for the Mission Tiki. But it was originally supposed to be torn down in December 2019, and then somehow it got delayed, and then COVID happened (and gave the venue a significant boost as construction on new usage got delayed). So it’s had an extra lease on life for a few years now.

They also run the Rubidoux and Van Buren out in Riverside. Then the other one around L.A., of course, is the Paramount (in the city of Paramount, near Long Beach), which is a cool story because it was only a swap meet for so many years and then came back. They ended up building an indoor on the same property, and kept the indoor going for long after the closed the drive-in, and then they brought the drive-in screens back six or seven years ago and have been doing really well. And the Roadium in Torrance, which also had just been a swap meet, has started showing movies again over the past five years or so. So that’s a cool one — and that’s an original screen tower, of which there are now almost none. So we still have a few around L.A. hanging on.

Do you have a favorite out of the 11 drive-ins you featured in the film?

No. Everybody always asks me if I have a favorite drive-in. I always say that any drive-in that is still open is my favorite drive-in. If you have a drive-in near you that’s open, that’s the best drive in — go to it. The message for me is, if you want it to survive, you have to go. You have to make it a thing. It’s not a novelty. It’s not nostalgia. They just have to be supported by their community to stay alive.

Probably anybody who runs a small business will relate to this, even if they have no love for seeing a movie outdoors.

I relate to it a lot because my family’s business was a roller rink back in the Chicago area. My grandfather built a roller rink and my mom grew up there, my mom and dad met there and I grew up there. so many kids would get dropped off by their parents for the afternoon that we were helping to raise all the kids in the town and make sure they fly right. So when I started looking at drive-ins, I could see all these similar aspects of a family business where you’re interacting with the public, and especially when it’s family entertainment, you do get to know people in the community and they know you.

For me, it is about the drive-ins, but there’s just a little bit of American entrepreneurship and small businesses and just this fight to build your own little kingdom and keep it your own, along with what you’re providing to the community. There’s a tremendous amount of resilience with all these things working against them, where they’re still determined that they’re gonna survive and thrive, and that the future is bright I think a lot of people don’t understand what happens behind the scenes — that they’re getting there early in the afternoon and leaving at 2 or 3 a.m. every day and just how much work and passion goes into it. So I really wanted to show more of that side of it.

That’s why you made a second documentary touching on the same subject?

Yeah. And the drones.

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