Back to the Drive-in (2022)

93% – Critics
73% – Audience

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The drive-in will never die. Hopefully.

Director and writer April Wright visited eleven family-owned drive-ins across the country to see how they keep their dream of playing movies in the open air alive. The pandemic allowed people to come back to this seemingly lost way to see movies – well, for some us, we never stopped going – and now that people can travel freely, the drive-ins still struggle.

Drive-ins include The Wellfleet in Wellfleet, Massachusetts; Quasar in Valley, Nebraska; Field of Dreams Drive-In in Liberty City, Ohio; Brazos Drive-In in Granbury, Texas; Coyote Drive-In in Fort Worth, Texas; Harvest Moon Drive-In in Gibson City, Illinois; Galaxy Drive-In in Ennis, Texas; Transit Drive-In in Lockport, New York; the sadly closed Mission Tiki in Montclair, California and the Bengies Drive-In in Middle River, Maryland. Each has a different size, geography and history, which is both happy and sad. I get wistful every time I leave the drive-in, thinking of all the places in my past – the Blue Sky, Spotlight 88, Super 51, Parkstown Corners – that have been closed and I can never go back to.

This film made me feel the same way, as we know how important these places are to our pop culture and yet as soon as COVID-19 – which really hasn’t gone away – was out of everyone’s brains, people went back to the movies instead of the magic of watching films in their cars.

It’s funny because some reviewers have commented on the too many drone shots of this film and that was my favorite part. I just want to fly over these movie heavens, drink them in, savor each and every part of them while they are still here. This film allows us to do that.

In the Pittsburgh area, we are lucky to have the ever, well, dependable Dependable Drive-In, the Evergreen Drive-In (the cleanest drive-in I’ve ever been to), the three-screen Brownsville Drive-In, the Comet Drive-In, the Starlight in Butler and the magical Riverside Drive-In, the home of all night horror drive-in weekends called the April Ghouls Drive-In Monster Rama and the Super Monster-Rama every April and September.

You should watch this movie and you should attend every one of these drive-ins as often as you can.

the good old days are hanging on

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.