The drive-in theater, the sound was never great and the picture not the sharpest, airplane noise, roaring trains, right in the middle of a big scene, rain or thick fog. As April Wright’s wonderful documentary “Back to the Drive-In” reminds us, for those who remember their heyday, none of that mattered.
Wright’s film is sweet, sad, and informative, getting to the heart of what makes the old-school outdoor moviegoing experience so special.
The director follows drive-in owners from different states (Texas, Maryland and Illinois, among others) as they try their best to keep their theaters alive in this, a very different time for cinema.
The pandemic was both a curse and a short blessing for the drive-in racket.
When inside theaters closed, people flocked to the outdoor venues, giving drive-ins a much-needed spike in attendance.
At the same time the pandemic changed the way studios released their films. Streaming became bigger than ever, and studios were releasing some of their biggest content for $20 across on-demand platforms.
With no long lines or high concession prices, no loud patrons, and the ability to pause anytime they wanted, movie fans were privy to a new and more comfortable way to watch films.
It is the communal experience they are missing out on.
April Wright first showed her love for the theater experiences of the past in her two “Going Attractions” films, where she paid respect to the drive-ins and movie palaces that used to be such an important part of one’s moviegoing world.
“Back to the Drive-in” is a direct follow up to “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie” and finds a sadness in the public’s lack of interest of supporting this old-styled way to see movies and a wistfulness in the stories from her interview subjects.
It is the theater owners who tell their tales and speak honestly to the struggles of making a profit in the digital age while doing all they can to draw crowds of a now streaming-addicted public.
In speaking to the 11 different owners across this nation, Wright’s film becomes quite touching. Where the filmmaker’s first drive-in doc was a historical love letter, this piece tells the stories of the owners and the hard work they put into keeping their theaters alive and kicking.
Wright shows a deference to the families who run these drive-ins and shows viewers the versatility in the ways each one added their personal touch to their theater.
From baking movie-themed treats to serving White Russians during a showing of “The Big Lebowski,” owners do their best to make attendees time at their theater something special.
The takeaway from Wright’s film is that communities must support these drive-ins, or all is lost. These are not novelty businesses, as families have passed the torch down through generations to keep their theaters going.
The owner of Middle River, Maryland’s Bengie’s Drive-In D. Edward Vogel says, “Movies used to mean something, and people used to anticipate their release. There was something called showmanship when you attended a theater.”
The drive-in theater was always a part of that showmanship and April Wright has done a marvelous job in capturing the magic of these theaters and the heartfelt passion and dedication of those who run them.
Through overhead shots of the theater grounds Wright allows the viewer to take in the designs of each venue and the beautiful landscapes that surround them.
To see the big screens backlit by the setting sun and the rows of cars full of movie fans can really take one back.
You can smell the popcorn and feel the summer breeze, as the sounds of the speakers echo through the air and the magic of the movies is projected onto the screens.
Wright’s documentary is a moving tribute to a small band of people who remain dedicated to keeping the memory of the drive-in’s glory days alive for new generations.
Turn off your headlights, roll your window down halfway, hook on that speaker, and enjoy!
“Back to the Drive-In” is a delight!