Back to the Drive-In Review
In one of his Movie Answer Man books, Roger Ebert was asked how he feels about drive-in movie theaters. I can’t find the quote, so I’m paraphrasing from memory, but Ebert answered that while he loves the idea of drive-ins as a slice of classical Americana, he hadn’t actually been to one in several years, as he very much preferred the sound and picture in a conventional theater.
I feel much the same way. I appreciate the part drive-ins play in American mythology. When one is shown in a movie, for instance, it tends to look really cool (see: that one great shot in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when Brad Pitt passes a drive-in on the way home). But I don’t really love the experience of going to drive-ins, and every time I went during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, my dominant feeling was that I really wished I was in an indoor theater instead.
Back in 2020, with regular movie theaters closed, drive-in movies made a big comeback, with established drive-ins getting much more business than usual and some makeshift ones popping up (one was set up in the Philadelphia area, where I live, which for some reason projected the films unto undersized shipping containers, with its location inconveniently situated right in the airport’s flightpath.)
This was also the age of drive-in comedy shows and even drive-in political rallies. But what happened to those drive-in venues, after regular movie theaters reopened? That’s the question at the heart of Back to the Drive-In, a new documentary that visits 11 drive-ins over the course of the summer of 2021, to see how they were grappling with the era when standard theaters and new movies were once again serving as competition.
These are, for the most part, mom-and-pop businesses run by what seems like good and admirable people who seem to really love the movies and the movie experience; there’s no national chain of drive-in theaters. But Back to the Drive-in also makes it clear that there are big questions about whether the business model of most drive-in theaters is still viable.
Directed by April Wright, Back to the Drive-In includes some really beautiful overhead drone photography of each of the drive-ins, including the Galaxy in Texas, the Wellfleet in Cape Cod, and the Field of Dreams Drive-in in Ohio. Missing is the Mahoning Drive-In in Pennsylvania, although that was the topic of its own doc, At the Drive-In, a few years ago. The Mahoning has drawn passionate audiences who love its double features of classic movies- and it survived a near-death experience in 2021.
Some of the then serve alcohol, which raises questions about whether it’s legal or advisable for people to drink in their cars or for businesses to serve alcohol that way. We also learn that the 2021 Fast and the Furious movie, F9: The Fast Saga was a big hit at drive-in theaters, which makes me wonder how anyone can watch that movie in a car and not want to immediately drive it really fast.
Back to the Drive-In makes it clear that the existence of a lot of these theaters is pretty precarious, with some of the owners getting offers to sell their land or even already in the process of closing.
It’s a fascinating subplot of the pandemic and an enjoyable documentary. But if the idea is to make the case for the drive-in movie experience, I’m not entirely sold.