The first drive-in theater opened in June 1933 in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Since then, drive-ins, originally referred to as “park-in” theaters, popped up around the country, offering a unique cinematic experience that’s been immortalized in films like Grease (1978), The Outsiders (1983), and Twister (1996). Despite the distinctive experience, with the rise of multiplexes, home video, and now streaming, the allure of the drive-in dwindled. In March 2020, however, things changed when precautions for COVID-19 came with requests for shutdowns, asking people to stay in their homes unless absolutely necessary. As information came in and restrictions lifted, people sought ways to get out of their homes safely and maybe even get some entertainment in the process, thus renewed interest in drive-ins occurred. In July of 2021, documentarian April Wright (Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story) visited 11 drive-ins in eight states to speak with the owners, operators, and staff to learn what it’s been like for them in the COVID-19 Era and the challenges they face. She took what they expressed, added extensive coverage of their locations, and put it all together in her new project, Back to the Drive-in, a film which highlights a microcosm of the theatrical entertainment sector that’s often overlooked and has gone unconsidered through candid and raw on-location interviews.
After a brief introduction where Wright presents the concept of the film and provides a map pin-pointing the places we’re about to go, the bulk of Back is just jumping from location to location after spending a few minutes listening and exploring. For the most part, there’s no rhyme or reason for the jump in locations, no tether of ideas or notions that a traditional or chronological-focused documentary might utilize in order to create some kind of narrative. Instead, Wright opts to use time itself as the overarching decider of how the documentary will function, subtly splitting Back into setup, opening, pre-show, and during the show. This creates a natural internal momentum to help pilot the flow of conversation for the majority of the interviewees, which is what gives Back its cinéma vérité vibe.
Nothing in Back is hugely dramatic in an explosive or grandiose way. Rather, audiences are encouraged to open their minds to issues that they, as consumers, may not have considered. For instance, in 2021, Warner Bros. Pictures dedicated themselves to a day/date streaming release for each of their theatrical releases. Primarily, this decision was intended to push new subscriptions to their streaming service HBO Max, but doing so upset a lot of the filmmakers and artists whose contracts included no such option. Home viewers rejoiced at the shift because it meant that they, too, could enjoy new releases, something that hadn’t really been available with total shutdowns and then concerns over possible exposure at in-door events. WB wasn’t the only one to engage in this practice as Disney instituted a reduced home release window or just moved films straight to their streaming service Disney+. As great as this is for consumers, it made conducting business more difficult for traditional theater-owners and even more-so for novelty experiences like a drive-in. Through these interviews, the audience hears about concerns of inflation, the impact of studio decisions, and the increase in audience frustrations (people who react aggressively to COVID protections). Wright makes sure to use the signs for each drive-in as the marker for when she jumps locales and almost all of them are showing the same film or, at the very least, F9 (2021), which was released in theaters June 25th of 2021. Though some films had been released in theaters prior to this, F9 was considered the biggest release at the time, held deliberately in order to be shown in theaters. If the footage is accurate, as well as testimonials from owners like Jennifer Miller (Brazos in Granbury, TX), F9’s release helped pull many drive-ins out of the weeds as people flocked to one of the few safer ways to see films.The interviewees express their various frustrations of being able to get enough supplies for their businesses, but, because of the presentation style, it’s unclear if Wright asks about whether these individuals are aware of the cascading effect of supply chain issues resulting from not just one, but multiple occurrences of supply boats getting stuck in water channels, the slowing down of processing transport containers at U.S. ports, or the Russia-Ukraine War that impact all businesses, not just drive-ins. These globalist concerns don’t matter when it comes down to the simple question of “can I keep my business afloat?.”
If you’re interested in a history lesson about drive-ins, you’d be better served checking out Wright’s 2013 historical documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie as Back to the Drive-in only offers history were applicable to the specific drive-ins she visits. Some of this is shared through location cards which pop-up each time she shifts location, offering the name, city and state, as well as information on when it was built, opened, or reopened. More often than not, the history is provided by whichever owner/operator Wright is interviewing, each one providing their personal connection to the place they work. This approach may not appeal to cinematic historians, yet, to be clear, Wright’s interest is in providing a more specific, narrow presentation of the people and their plight to keep their business afloat rather than a history lesson. This personal approach encourages audiences to lean-in, especially if they’re cinephiles, as they are invited to learn about the ins and outs of various facilities (some long in operation at a traditional premises, others very new and run out of a backyard), as well as the frustrations and joys that come from operating a drive-in.
The Wellfleet in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, is near Cape Cod and therefore struggles with the dreaded f-word (fog) rolling in and delaying or even preventing entire screenings. The owners of Field of Dreams Drive-In in Liberty City, Ohio, brought in a band to play ahead of that night’s screening, providing little in profit by the end of the night but potentially being a key to bringing in new or repeat customers. For newly opened Quasar in Valley, Nebraska, they understand that there could be a problem with the digital cinema package (DCP) used for screenings, so they have a setup where a Blu-ray or DVD can be used as a back-up when screening older releases. Each of these struggles are presented as just part of the business, things lamented with a chuckle or slight hand-wringing, each off-set by a story of personal connection to what they do and their love of movies. Though the jumping back and forth after a few minutes, especially without any connective tissue from one person’s thought in one location to the next, makes it a little harder to connect with on the whole, Back to the Drive-in is so full of anecdotes and personal stories that one can’t help but be charmed by it, lost in the magic and possibilities of movies.
Though there’s no analysis or answers, no challenge provided as to how solutions can be made, or any general recognition regarding the complexity of the rippling effects of what COVID-19+ continues to dole out, one finishes Back to the Drive-in not with sadness or a sense of watching something historic die out, but with hope. Hope that, even as home viewing shifts thanks to increases in technology making it more customizable and comfortable for viewers who either can’t safely go or choose not to go to the theater, people still want to go to the movies. Not only that, but the drive-ins look for ways to make it a fun, communal experience. If there’s one thing that all of the owners have in common, regardless of their feelings on the state of things, is that they love movies. This much is undeniably clear. Because of this, one can’t help but root for them.
In select theaters beginning August 12th, 2022.
For more information, head to the Going Attractions Back to the Drive-in webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.