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Some people may think of the drive-in theatre as antiquated, but it is not. They still exist far and wide, and as for why they are worth going to is because it helps foster local communities. And for one passionate filmmaker, April Wright, her lifelong examination of this culture is part of a series called Going Attractions. Her latest work, Going Back to the Drive-In, looks at not only this aspect but also what goes on to maintain these operations in today’s global climate.
I had the opportunity to speak to Wright, and we talked about history, its rise back into the public consciousness because of the pandemic, and its future. She said, “My very first documentary came out in 2013, and it was called Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie (available on Tubi). It explored the whole history of drive-ins.”
After making a few other works, she decided on producing Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace. It was about the indoor cinema experience the big old theatres built by the studios. Afterwards was Stuntwomen, The Untold Hollywood Story. Although she could have gone on to produce other movies about the studio system, a little voice said something else.
“Going Back to the Drive-In gave me an opportunity to revisit that subject. I also called it that because a lot of people went back to drive-ins as a result of the pandemic. This time, I’d go more behind the scenes with the families that own them. I had a couple of crew members that came with me when I shot at The Mission Tiki, a drive-in near Los Angeles, but the rest of it, I shot myself. I drove from here over to Texas, up to Nebraska through the Midwest to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Cape Cod and Baltimore. I’ve been to eight states and 11 Drive-Ins.”
How did this interest develop when you were growing up?
My mom took us when we were kids. There were three still operating out of North Chicago and as I got older, during high school and after, I noticed they were going away more frequently. A lot of them were abandoned. I wanted to understand what happened to the drive-ins. For my first documentary. I drove all around the United States and even went to Hawaii. The only state I have not been to is Alaska. I ended up going to over 500 drive-ins.
Where can people see these prior documentaries?
I have my website, Goingattractions.com, that will have info on where to watch my past works. They’re even on Tubi, so you don’t have to subscribe or pay for access.
What else keeps these drive-ins going in today’s times now that the pandemic isn’t as feared?
The pandemic was an interesting thing because it shined light on the fact that there are still drive-ins out there. Most of them are located here in the U.S., followed by Canada and Australia. There’s a sprinkling throughout Europe and other countries. There were over 5,000 at the peak, and now we’re just under 300.
The ones left are family owned businesses. In some cases, it’s been in the family for years, and they just really feel like they’re providing something important for their local community. They thrive on the families and the kids coming to the drive-in, having that experience being able to create a great memory. And they feel like that’s something really significant to provide to people.
In Going Back to the Drive-In, you hear about all modern day issues that these drive-ins are facing, and you know it’s not easy. They’re not printing money. It is a labour of love. And if it is something that you want to stay around, we do have to look into. Right now, even the indoor theatres are struggling; the studios think sending movies straight to streaming will work. But I think they’re now realising that’s not the best approach.
Would you say that motivation is still the same when drive-ins first started, or was it just a different mentality back then?
The drive-in is 90 years old this year; the very first one opened in 1933, and there were about 100 operations before World War Two. They really took off afterwards, in conjunction with the baby boom. That was really the thing that made these outdoor venues a great place to go. There was optimism after the war, and this idea of expanding the freeway system, being mobile, being free. And it’s now come full circle. It’s back to being a family centred place. Over time, it was more of a teenage hangout, but the last 30 years at least, it’s been family dominated again.
What’s the difference between the corporate run and the family businesses?
Well, there’s hardly any. Even if they are corporations that have more than one location, they’re still family owned businesses. So there are not any AMC or Cinemark chains drive-ins right now; part of a company that might have indoor and outdoor theatres are still family based companies. To my knowledge, there used to be some bigger chains that were in the drive in business. But most of that faded away a long time ago.
I didn’t know much about Drive-ins until I saw films like Grease and American Graffiti. On TV, Happy Days was more about the food service. Though in your piece, I see that food and entertainment go hand-in-hand.
All of that did go together with this whole idea after World War Two in the 40s onward. We were doing a lot of things in our cars, and we were encouraged to do that. In the USA, our president Dwight Eisenhower signed a big budget to enhance the freeway system and put a lot of investment into that. We also had a GI Bill that supported building out the suburbs and put out that image of a two-car family. That created situations that help support Drive-Ins and, of course, all this is before television really became a thing.
The peak was in the late 50s. There was one month in August 1952 when drive-in box office revenue exceeded indoor cinema.
In your documentary, you examined one hurdle these outdoor operations faced. Inclement weather can really screw up a night. While some people like the comfort of staying warm inside, these places have to keep careful eye on reports which may force a close for the night.
Well, here’s the thing. They hardly ever shut down. Some drive-ins are seasonal. So they’re only open during the summer months, but that’s changed in recent years because they are struggling, and they need the additional revenue. So it would open in May and it would close in early September. And that’s really expanded to get through Halloween. They call it trunk or treat instead of trick or treat. Kids can go trick or treating to different trunk trunks.
I was just looking at something on Instagram where a drive in Pennsylvania was open a couple of days ago, and it was literally snowing while the cars were there–it was beautiful. People get scared away by those things. The drive-ins won’t be closed. They’ll stay open unless there’s, like, a huge tornado warning.
The worst case scenario is they would have to refund everybody’s money and tell customers we can’t put on the show. And so there’s a little tension in my story about that–it’s something that drive-in owners are looking at all the time.
Did you face any of that during production of Going Back to the Drive-In?
I had a bit of treacherous driving from one location to another location because of the rain, but on the whole I was very fortunate. I basically spent one long day at each Drive in. It would start at 2 or 3pm in the afternoon and I ran around shooting everything.
Is the drive-in a community in itself because there are regulars, as your film points out?
Yeah, I think very much so, that drive-ins have always been a gathering place for the community where you can come and see your neighbours and gather with. Even the theatre owners themselves become part of that. They often tell stories about how they will see a family come with kids and then those kids grow up, and then those kids might come dating someone, and then get married; most of the customers are from within a one-hour radius of the place.
That’s one of the reasons I’m such a big advocate to try to keep these places around. When we get rid of places like this, and we put up a big box store, I think it takes something away from the fabric of those communities.
Would you say the Drive-In theatre is part of Americana?
They were really dominant in the United States. I think we had over 5,000. In Canada, it might have been under 2000–but yeah, it definitely was an American thing, especially now that they are family businesses. That American entrepreneurship to own your own business, give back to your community, certainly is the spirit we see in Back to the Drive-In.
What would you say to the readership to help preserve.
That’s for people to go to the drive-in. I hope once people watch this documentary that they do get inspired to find if they’re drive-ins left near them and that they should support them. It’s only with those recurring customers that will help. I want people to see how hard these families are working and what it takes–we want them to succeed, and so you have to help.
I’m optimistic that this summer will see them improve, and next year will be even better. Likewise, I think maybe even in a few years. We might see a few more drive-ins coming back because there are some new ones being built and there are some old ones being brought back to life. A lot of that is happening right now, so possibly we’ll see a little, a little pop in the future.