Back to the Drive-In: April Wright Goes Behind the Curtain in Her Newest Drive-In Documentary

Photo by Kremer/Johnson

April Wright has spent a good chunk of her career chronicling the history of the film industry, with feature documentaries on movie palaces and drive-ins covering the exhibition side. The writer/director/producer turns her lens (and her drones) on the 21st century with Back to the Drive-In, revisiting the industry covered previously in her 2013 film Going Attractions.

Planning the documentary pre-pandemic, Wright pictured her latest film as a story of today’s drive-in owners during a time of decreasing numbers. Shortly thereafter, Covid-19 all but shut down the global exhibition industry, leaving drive-ins the only place in many areas to see a film outside the home. With this unique set of circumstances came increased popularity and wider attention for drive-ins—though, as seen from the owners of the 11 drive-ins from eight states featured in the doc, the industry was and remains beset by serious challenges. Wright chronicles these challenges, as well as the resilience and creativity of drive-in owners, in Back to the Drive-In, in theaters (yes, indoor ones too) on August 12.

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First of all, watching this movie really makes you want to go to the drive-in.

I’m so happy with the title, because during the pandemic, people went back to the drive-in. I went back to the drive-in to make a second documentary. And now that more movies are coming [out] from the studios, don’t forget about the drive-ins. Everybody needs to keep going back to the drive-in! The message is built into the title.

Your other films about the film industry, including your first film on drive-ins, have come from a historical perspective. What made you want to tell a more current story here?

I wanted to do a second drive-in documentary because I was still seeing a gradual decline in the numbers. In Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie—long title—I had shown the whole history, but I wanted to really profile the owners. I wanted to show this topic, that they have to keep these places going, keep them alive, and that it’s important for people to make it a regular habit. If you want to keep them around, you have to go to them. This was all before the pandemic hit. I went to the drive-in [conference, UDITOA] down in Florida in February of 2020, and I said I wanted to make this documentary. Brad Pitt had just won the Oscar, and he was talking about how he grew up going to drive-ins. We were trying to think how we could leverage that and bring some attention to drive-ins.

Also, I wanted to make a second drive-in documentary because we have drones now, and when I made the first one, [we didn’t]. I’m a drone pilot. I got a drone and learned how to fly it and how to do all that. The first one, I shot it so long ago that it was shot in standard def. By the time I was done, I had to [convert] it to high-def. This film I could shoot all in 4K, and I could get all that drone cinematography, which definitely gives [a different] perspective on the drive-in. A big part of this new film is being able to see them from a different angle that you wouldn’t normally see. Those were the things I really wanted to show: the people, how hard they work to keep their drive-ins going, and the beautiful imagery that I couldn’t get when I made my last film.

At the very beginning of the film, you establish that—despite what many outside the industry were saying—2020 wasn’t some great boom period for drive-ins. They were still struggling.

It’s a hustle. They’re all family owned; even if they’re companies, they’re family-owned companies. They really care. They have a passion for what they provide to the community. That’s what really shines through. Despite all the different types of troubles that the industry is facing right now, they seem very determined to make sure that their drive-ins stay alive and stay in their communities.

It’s so neat to see drive-ins from an aerial perspective, because you can see the design of them, that they’re much more complicated than just big fields.

You saw, especially during the pandemic, a lot of these pop-up drive-ins. You can’t blame people for putting one outside a restaurant or whatever, but it is a little different when you’re just in a parking lot, because the angles aren’t right, and the rows aren’t right. It gives you a taste of the experience. But when you go to a real, authentic drive-in, there’s a design, there’s a layout. There’s architecture involved. The flow of the snack bar is thought through. All of these pieces. It is a designed experience that has been working for years. Because you’re in a theater. You’re just outside. People have told me, “I’d only gone into a pop-up, and then I went to this real drive-in and was like, wow, I get it now!”[Editor’s note: UDITOA maintains www.authenticdriveins.com, which helps moviegoers in the United States, Canada, and Australia find drive-in theaters near them.]

The drive-in owners you interview are so candid, especially talking about the challenges—like unruly customers—they’ve been dealing with these past few years.

I didn’t know all [that] when I got on the road. From L.A. [I went to] the Dallas area, then up to Nebraska, through Ohio, Illinois, upstate New York to Cape Cod, Baltimore, and then I drove back. I did the whole cross-country trip. I didn’t know some of the issues. But if you think about it, you would. They were having supply chain problems, like everybody. They were having problems finding employees to hire, like all the restaurants, like everybody else. And like the airlines, they were having problems with customers who didn’t want to comply with the rules and who were feeling very entitled. It’s like people were locked up so long, they forgot that if you go somewhere in public, it’s not just you!

For me, [in deciding who to include in the film], there is an element of casting, in a way. For all my films, I’m always thinking about who can provide different points of view and different perspectives. For this film, in particular, I tried to choose all different types of drive-ins—in different states, in rural areas or city areas, some that had a single screen and some that had up to seven screens, some where the owner had just opened three weeks before I got there—the Quasar in Nebraska—and then some where they had owned it for 37 years. Like Jennifer [Miller] at [Granbury, Texas’s] Brazos, who was ready to sell her drive-in. All these different types, all these different points of view. And yet the story was the same at the end of the day. They’re all dealing with the same things, even though they’re completely different.

Despite those problems, they really display a sense of optimism about the future of drive-ins.

Especially now. The pandemic put the focus on staying home and streaming, and it gave the studios an opportunity to test out what happens if we do day-and-date, or if we don’t put [a movie] in theaters at all. It seems like the lesson learned is that the theatrical piece is really the hub of the industry, and so critical. I think people are realizing how important the theatrical component is.

But there certainly was a time during the pandemic when people were questioning, is it going to die? And when you talk to people, despite the struggles, they are vested in their drive-ins and in this industry, and they’re confident that they’re going to have a good season and that they’re going to stay alive. But people need to leave their houses! Hopefully we’ll do our part: The public, the communities, the people and the families will get out to these places and support them and help bring the industry back to where it needs to be.

The thing about drive-ins, where they are somewhat unique [compared] to indoor theaters, is that when you go to a drive-in you can talk to the people with you and have a little bit more of a communal experience. You create a memory. When you’re streaming at home, it all blends together. When you go to any theater, but especially when you go to a venue like a drive-in, it creates a good memory about the people you were with. When I talk to people, they’ll remember what they ate, what they saw, what it smelled like. It’s a very vivid memory for people when they go to drive-ins.

[The other way that] drive-ins are great for the industry is that they also provide a different way to see a movie. So many people that I know are like, “I already saw Top Gun in a multiplex, or on an Imax screen. Now I want to go see it at a drive-in. I want to have that experience.” Because they know the film will feel different if they see it at a drive-in, and that that’s a different type of memory and experience. I think it helps with repeat views if you have drive-ins in your area.

What else are you working on now?

I’m working on a whole bunch of things. For documentaries, I’m going to do some follow-up Going Attractions, which I shot B-roll for last summer when I was on the road visiting drive-ins. Those are going to be about roller rinks, which was my family’s business growing up, north of Chicago. My family had a rink. My first job was working the snack bar there when I was 13 years old, for one dollar an hour. I’m working on another one about bowling alleys and [another on] mom-and-pop amusement parks, because people don’t realize there were little regional amusement parks everywhere before everything became Six Flags or Disney. Those are similar topics, where I’ll look at the whole history [of an industry] and all the different stages. Roller skating is another one that’s having a pretty big surge right now in popularity.

Another older industry surviving because people value communal experiences.

Unfortunately, a lot of places—movie palaces, drive-ins, roller rinks, bowling alleys—are getting torn down to become shopping centers and things like that. So there are some cultural messages [there] about valuing commerce and shopping more than family gathering places and community gathering places. I think in the long run, some of those choices are probably not the best choices. We used to have a lot more [communal spaces], and now we have a lot less of things like that. I think the pandemic made people want things that are comfortable and maybe a little wholesome, in a way. 

And compared to indoor theaters, they can be much more experiential and, for lack of a better term, Instagrammable.

If you go to a drive-in, you’re far enough [away] from people that if you’re [taking a picture] it’s OK. The other cool thing about drive-ins is that sometimes it’s more than 3D—it’s almost like 4D sometimes. You have the sky above you. Sometimes you have woods around you. If you’re seeing a scary film, if it’s raining—you have all these environmental things that add this other dimension to the experience.

Back to the Drive-In screened at drive-ins on June 6, Drive-In Day. What are your release plans after that?

We’re doing the bigger theatrical release, which will include indoor [theaters] and drive-ins, on August 12. This summer has so many great releases. I wanted to stay away and let the drive-ins [take full advantage]. August 12 is getting toward the end of the standard drive-in season, although a lot of them stay open later and sometimes year-round.

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