By Ali Moosavi.

Most of the filmmakers that we consider greats talk about how they fell in love with cinema by going to see films at the drive-in or going to see them at movie palaces. We might have a generation now that feels different about cinema because they have less of those experiences…. So, we’ll have to see what the next generation of filmmakers draw their inspiration from and whether it is from memories like this.”

Growing up in Tehran, there were two drive-in cinemas that my family used to frequent. As a child I loved going to those and I still remember one night when the moon seemed so big and so close to the drive-in that I ran to touch it! Now there are no drive-ins in most cities that I’ve been to, though they did make a sort of a come back during the COVID pandemic.

April Wright is a drive-in enthusiast and has made a couple of documentaries about them, the latest one being Back to the Drive-in. I talked to her about this passion of hers.

How and when did your obsession with drive-in cinemas start?

It’s funny you call it an obsession; I am a little obsessed with it. I went to drive-ins growing up as a kid with my parents. It was one of our regular activities during the summer. I had a movie family, so we always saw movies, but I especially remember going to the drive-ins. I also went to my local drive in a lot during high school and when I got a little older I noticed many of them were closing, they were boarded up and sitting vacant and I couldn’t understand why. We love cars, we love movies, so what happened? I started looking into this. Everybody said it was the real estate but there were so many just sitting abandoned and I knew there had to be more to this story. So I did a bunch of research, and I made my first documentary which was Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in. I traveled to every state except Alaska to make that movie and visited over 500 drive-ins which were either operating, closed or abandoned and I learned a lot about drive-ins. That movie was released in 2013 and as the title of my new movie implies, I wanted to go back to the drive-ins just as many people went back to them and rediscovered them during the pandemic. I wanted to go behind the scenes to show that they’re all family owned and to show how much work goes into keeping a drive-in going and also how passionate the owners are to keep the drive-ins alive for their communities.

How did you go about selecting which drive-ins to focus on for your film?

For Back to the Drive-in, I wanted to show some drive-ins that are brand new and also ones that had been around for years. I wanted to show big drive-ins that have up to 7 screens, single screen drive-ins, just all the different types. Some that are in a city and some are very rural. I knew when I started that I wanted to show a cross section of all these different types of owners and I thought they’d have many differences. I didn’t know until I started visiting a few of them that they were all having the same issues. That it didn’t matter where they were located or how many screens they had or how old they are. Everybody was dealing with the same issues, trying to get through to the other side of COVID and the challenges that the theatrical business are having right now and trying to find employees and all of these things that all small businesses are going through.

 An interesting thing is the camaraderie between the owners; they all help each other which is unusual in business.

Well, it wasn’t that way for a long time. The drive-ins started forming associations in the 2000s. Part of that was to help each other get through the transition to digital because all the larger exhibition chains had support and incentives from the studios to make that conversion and a lot of the art house theaters and drive-ins were left behind. So they realized that working together could help them with some of the changes that were going on in the industry. It’s really only in more recent years that they’re talking to each other and especially with the Internet they could see more of what the other was doing and they’ve started helping each other because there’s not that many of them left. Going into COVID there were 305 authentic drive-ins left. I’ll be interested to see the number at the end of this year. I think it’s going to drop below that because some of them have had so much of a struggle that they’ve gotten out of the fight. 

Some of these drive-ins are in the backyard of the owner’s houses or farms!

That’s true. Back in the day when they were built, a lot of them in the fifties, some of them had housing inside the screening tower. So sometimes the family who owned the drive-in actually lived in the drive-in tower and a lot of them built their houses near the drive-in or on the premises. The couple in the Field of Dreams drive-in in Ohio cut down their corn field and built a drive-in in their backyard and it was so successful they added a second screen.

Build it and they will come! I think people who go to drive-ins go for a different cinema going experience. They’ve probably seen the movie playing as a lot of drive-in show films that are not new. I liked those drive-ins in the movie which have added something to the movie going experience. One of them had a live band, another had a special The Big Lebowski night where they dressed up like characters in that film and another had a kids playground.

Yes, I agree. First off, most people think drive-ins play old movies but that’s not true. Most drive-ins play new releases. They used to play older films back in the day and during COVID when there weren’t new films. Occasionally they’ll have retro nights where they will play older films. The Greenville that was playing The Big Lebowski are more of a specialty drive-in. They have a bar and they mostly play older films and favorite films but they’ll also sometimes play brand new independent films so they’re able to experiment a little bit more but what you’re saying in the bigger picture is true that when you go to see a movie in a theater the attraction is the movie while when you go to see a movie at a drive-in the whole experience is the attraction. You can talk and interact with the people you’ve gone with and the drive-ins do have extra things, like a playground and they usually have way better food than indoor theaters and some of them have live bands; different things that they’re adding to the experience. The thing about seeing a movie at a drive-in is that it really is creating a memory and a good experience. It’s way more than just watching a film. I heard a lot of people saying things like I already saw Top Gun at an indoor theater, now I’m going to see it at a drive-in because I know it’s going to be a completely different experience. And if you see a scary movie, like Nope which just came out and a lot of drive-ins are playing, you’re outside and you’re in the car and there might be trees a few feet away from you and it can add another dimension to the film, especially if it’s a scary film which plays really well at drive-ins.

Nowadays it’s more difficult to bring people out of their houses to cinemas. They all have Netflix, HBO, Disney plus, etc. and have big screen TV’s and beautiful sound systems and they can make popcorn at home so it has to be something special to bring them out, either a very special movie or a special event.

Yes, I can’t disagree with that. The same thing happened in the 50s when televisions came into homes and that did take a huge bite out of the movie business and it really cut down on people going to indoor theaters and going to drive-ins. But the industry always reinvents itself. Back in the 50s it created cinemascope and when movies were all in black and white, they started having Technicolor. I don’t think we know at all the new things that can be added to keep the business going. It was kind of an experiment during COVID when everybody kept saying what’s the value of the theatrical experience and a lot of studios had an opportunity to test that by putting out movies simultaneously in theaters and on the streamer and I think most of them came to the conclusion that the theatrical experience is valuable, that people want to go out and see films and that it does help the revenue of the film. I think people were worried for a little while that this is the end of the theatrical experience, but I feel that people are coming back around that and that there’s something inside of us that likes to see these stories with other people.

One of the drive-in owners said “drive-in creates memories that people keep forever” which I thought is very true. I still have vivid memories of drive-ins and I think that’s something you don’t get going to normal theaters.

Yes, I would agree. When I when I talk to people, they can tell me everything they remember about being at drive-ins and sometimes not even the movie, they’ll just remember what it smelled like, what they ate, if they were in their pajamas or not, it’s a more visceral memory and experience and it’s like a feel-good memory too.  

Talking to the owners, what did they think the future holds for them and what do you personally think is the future for drive-ins?

That’s such a good question. I think they’re cautiously optimistic, but you know the owner of The Harvest Moon drive-in has a two-year-old daughter, who’s in the film, and he says that he’s really worried whether drive-ins will be around for her when she grows up. He hopes they will, but he says things aren’t like they used to be. There’s not that certainty and I think they’re all kind of feel that way. They’re very dedicated, very passionate but also very determined. I feel that this is really a story of human resilience because it really shows how determined they are to keep their drive-ins going and why they think it’s so important to their communities and to the kids and the families that they serve. They’re very hopeful but they’re really not sure and it’s definitely a time of uncertainty. As for me, I’m an optimist and I love movie going. I love the theatrical experience and I’ve done a few films on movie exhibition besides the drive-in one. I did one about movie palaces which was really about the history of cinema exhibition and now I’ve done Back to the Drive-in. So, I love the experience and I hope it continues. Most of the filmmakers that we consider greats talk about how they fell in love with cinema by going to see films at the drive-in or going to see them at movie palaces. We might have a generation now that feels different about cinema because they have less of those experiences. They’re watching films on their mobiles and streaming. So, we’ll have to see what the next generation of filmmakers draw their inspiration from and whether it is from memories like this. I can’t wait to see a movie at drive-in.

Back to the Drive-in is being released in both indoor theatres and drive-ins on August 12th and will go on streaming sometime in the fall.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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