“I went to drive-ins growing up with my family, and I saw fewer of them as I got older. I could not understand why because we still have cars, we still love movies, there seemed to be no reason for them to be closed or falling into disrepair,” lamented director April Wright, director of the documentary, Back To The Drive-In.
It features eleven unique family-owned locations dotted across the United States and looks at the industry’s plight and fight to keep them going. This is Wright’s second documentary focusing on the iconic venues; the first, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie, came out in 2013 and covered their history. Back To The Drive-In is now available On Digital & On Demand.
She wanted to do a follow-up focusing on the people trying to keep them alive because “practically all the drive-ins left are family owned. It is these families putting their heart and soul into keeping them going and understanding the importance that they have for their local communities.”
“I was actually at the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association Convention (UDITOA) in Orlando, Florida, in February 2020 and told a lot of the owners there that I wanted to do this follow-up and if people wanted to be part of it to let me know,” Wright recalled. “About a month later, the pandemic happened, everything shut down, and drive-ins became the only show in town.”
The pandemic led to some in the film industry embracing drive-ins and using them to premiere films that couldn’t land in shuttered theaters. Among was Universal Studios’ Freaky, which premiered at the now-closed Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre in Montclair, California, which is featured in the documentary. Actor-director Dave Franco’s feature directorial debut, The Rental, premiered at Vineland Drive-In theatre in City of Industry, California. Both events took place during the height of the pandemic in 2020.
However, it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that Wright went out into the field. Originally only planning three or four drive-ins, the filmmaker increased the number to eleven because she wanted to get a broader sense of what was going on in rural locations as well as those near cities. It was a mixed picture.
“I’ve been in the business for 35 years now, and there are a lot of reasons why drive-ins went by the wayside, but a big one had to do with the product and getting movies,” added John Vincent, the President of the UDITOA and owner-operator of Wellfleet Drive-In and Cinemas in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. “We had been in the spotlight with the conversion to digital because that was quite an expensive changeover about ten years earlier. It was kind of the doomsday scenario where drive-ins would be done in by this conversion to digital. Then we returned to being persona non grata in the media until COVID hit.”
While the attention was appreciated and brought increased trade, Vincent admitted there was an element of frustration with the perception but has a theory.
“McDonald’s existed in the 50s, indoor movie theaters existed in the 50s, so why is it that we’re the ones representing a bygone era?” he mused. “It does have a lot to do with the fact that only ten percent or less of us are left. I guess that causes us to be looked at as if we’re classic, but it’s still an awesome way to watch a movie, and that hasn’t changed.”
“It does take a certain type of person to run a drive-in because it’s not an easy business, so you have to have passion for it,” Wright added.
While some drive-ins have been passed down from generation to generation, new blood is coming in and starting from scratch, despite the pressures.
“Some younger people that are taking over locations, but sometimes it is an employee who has worked at the place for a long time that eventually took it over,” Wright explained. “There is some connection to wanting to provide this experience and the good memories that you want to share with other people that I think all the owners have in common.”
“They’re very passionate about keeping them going and the value it provides to the community, but maybe you have to be a little a little nuts because there are a lot of obstacles.”
She added, “In any business where you’re dealing with the public, you’ve got to be a certain type of personality just to be deal with the public day in and day out. They’re entrepreneurs. At their core, these are family-owned businesses. When you think of anybody who wants to live that American dream and have a business, that’s who these people are.”
The value offered by the pricing model also created added appeal for audiences, brand new and returning, with several spots in the documentary pulling out the stops with theming and special programming.
“It goes beyond the movie, it’s about the experience and the showmanship of it, and I tried to show him the film in different ways,” Wright enthused. “All these different aspects of drawing people in, from beer and food to double features of play areas and family films, are the bread and butter.”
Vincent added, “At indoor theaters, you go in, and it is 100 percent about the movie; it’s a little bit about the experiences around sound, the screen, the nice seats, but in the drive-in, the experience is the biggest part of it. Actors and actresses have been on the stage at things like CinemaCon and said they remember their first drive-in movie but don’t remember their first indoor movie.”
The pandemic’s profile uptick also created opportunities for distributors of genre content, with some films making box office history.
“During the pandemic, there was a bump in horror because there was less studio product coming out, and some of these mini-majors did well putting a lot of horror films into drive-ins. I think it was one of the things that kept people coming out during the pandemic,” the filmmaker said.
Vincent interjected, “Even then, some drive-ins do well with horror and always have, but some, like me, do horribly with it. We’ve tried.”
However, times remained tough for some, with one participant in the documentary saying that they made a profit of just $5 one night.
“Everybody got overlooked during the pandemic when the studios finally had a chance to do what they wanted to test for a while, and that was putting movies straight onto the streaming platforms,” the filmmaker revealed. Most of them have now realized that that’s not the best path for their new releases and their big films in particular. I don’t think that turned out well financially for anybody with any of their titles.”
“I do feel like the studios are back to embracing that there has to be a theatrical component, but I will say some of the terms are more friendly to the bigger cinemas that have had more leverage in terms of how many weeks things have to stay on screens and so on.”
Wright continued, “When you’re talking about drive-ins, independent cinemas, single screen theaters, especially if they’re in a more rural area and you have to keep the same movie on screen for three or four weeks. That’s squeezing these places and giving them a tough time.”
She would like to see multiple tiers of terms, or different sets of terms, depending on the venue. “That might make a big difference,” she suggested. “The model isn’t designed for drive-ins and many of these independent cinemas.”
In some cases, studios demand three weeks on the big titles and single-screen theaters, drive-ins, and indoors alike. However, drive-ins continue to innovate and find new ways to bring in additional revenue from traditional money-spinners like concessions and by developing cool merchandise.
“Similar to the indoor theaters, the concessions are the big thing when it comes to revenue, but the merch is something more recent and is gathering more pace,” Wright confirmed. “Almost every drive-in has their t-shirts or hats and things like that. It’s a unique revenue channel, and they’ve leaned into it.”
“These places have become a destination that people want to visit and get a memento. You wouldn’t go to an AMC theater and think I need to leave with a t-shirt that says AMC on it, but you would go to the Wellfleet Drive-In and think I want to have a t-shirt to remember the good time you had there.”
“It’s all interconnected. We couldn’t pay 100 percent film rental and live off concessions revenue; we couldn’t do just the movies with excellent film rental rates tool and not have concessions. It’s all a big piece of the pie. But the pandemic hit that hard, too,” Vincent lamented. “There were some jurisdictions that prohibited concession sales in 2020.”
“Thankfully, at that time, we were all doing retro screenings, and bluntly, instead of terms being 50 to 60 percent, we were down to 30 or 40 percent, so that helped. Merchandise sales are becoming a bigger piece of the puzzle. Our merchandise sales went from five percent of concessions to ten percent of concessions over the last two years. We just ramped up an online store and even dedicated a fulfillment center on our property to handle the demand.”
Wright’s documentary Back To The Drive-In is not a period at the end of this cultural and commercial sentence.
“We are definitely in the middle of a transition, not just for drive-ins but for the film industry. Last summer, Top Gun: Maverick really helped, but everything else did okay, and we’re still not back where we were,” she said. “I think drive-ins have enough unique elements that it is an experience and has some advantages over indoor cinema, which will help.”
“We have also seen more changing of hands of drive-ins in the last two years than in the last 30 in terms of them losing or new owners taking over, but there are also a ton of drive-ins that haven’t been open for decades that are coming back and new ones being built from the ground up.”
Wright continued, “I’m optimistic even though we know the numbers are down, compared to going into the pandemic, and we’re lower than we were at the start, but I’m optimistic they can come back up in the next three to five years.”
“Give us the movies, and people will come. Things will correct,” Vincent added. “2023 is not there in terms of the schedule, although some great movies are coming out this summer. We are fired up about Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning and the new Indiana Jones, but 2024 looks fantastic. In one way, I’m almost glad the band-aid was ripped off on the streaming nonsense. They’ve learned their lesson that there’s nothing that can make money like transactional revenue.”
He concluded, “I think drive-ins will be here for a very long time, but so will the pressures, which include rising land prices. I would rather open a drive-in from scratch than an indoor cinema at this point, and I’ve had other operators tell me that we’ve had some indoor operators get into the drive-in space.”
“I know for a fact that there are several indoor operators I’ve spoken to, including one of my local indoor competitors, who are dying to do this. They’re just looking for the right opportunity. We can make the studios a lot of money, and it can be a good business if done right.”