Award This! 2023 Nominee! available on Prime Video. Perhaps the only good thing that has come from the pandemic is that people are rediscovering what makes a drive-in a unique way to enjoy movies. It’s about as close as one can come to enjoying the communal experience of seeing a motion picture without the dangers of getting close enough to catch deadly pathogens. I grew up in Miami County, Kansas, where one of the delights of living there is the Drive-In at Midway, which is situated between the towns of Paola and Osawatomie. Unfortunately, the indoor theaters in the area closed down around 1980, so this was how many of my fellow geeks discovered the films that made them happy to be alive. If Covid extended a lifeline to what had been a struggling institution, making drive-ins viable in the 21st century is an eternal struggle.
April Wright’s documentary Back to the Drive-in follows a series of drive-in proprietors across the United States as they try to keep their theaters going. If everyone’s least favorite virus has created a demand for the previously neglected venue, making a living from them is another story. One operator is forced to accept a buyout equal to nearly 25 years of operation. Wright wisely lets the proprietors speak for themselves, and they tell her it’s hard to make a profit when the number of showtimes is limited and winters shut down the theaters for six months or more.
“…making drive-ins viable in the 21st century is an eternal struggle.”
Once it became obvious that Covid wasn’t going away, many studios withheld their blockbusters or delayed them. For some viewers, it’s not worth leaving home for something that can be Redboxed or streamed. More than a few lament that newer customers don’t know the basic etiquette of sharing a drive-in with others (berating teen employees is as disgusting as it is counterproductive). One proprietor even has to monitor fog levels, which can prevent the movies from being visible.
Naturally, no one would attend drive-ins to watch the owners whine about the difficulties they face in keeping their screens lit, and Wright includes dozens of ways the people who run them keep customers coming back throughout Back to the Drive-in. I’m not sure too many indoor theaters would promote Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 by scooting around the lot in Segways. For a revival screening of The Big Lebowski, there are the requisite White Russians, while the concession stand sells cookies bearing the Dude’s likeness, advising customers to “abide.” One Indiana drive-in runs like a backyard party. The owners seem to have taken an “if you build it, they will come attitude,” and that is what has apparently happened. As a result, the gatherings are as much a social event as they are entertainment.
"…enjoy the communal experience of seeing a motion picture without...getting close enough to catch deadly pathogens."