Reel to Real: The Mahoning Drive-In Theater Celebrates 35mm and Drive-In Culture

Courtesy of The Mahoning Drive-In Theater

On this week’s episode of the Boxoffice Podcast, Virgil Cardamone of the Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, PA explains how the famed drive-in venue brings nostalgia to life by exclusively offering eventized 35mm screenings and how tapping into film fandom has made them a mecca for movie lovers.

The Mahoning Drive-in Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania has become a destination for movie goers, specifically horror lovers. Can you give us a little background on the theater and your mission?

We’ve been blessed with a voice. We’ve been blessed with this ability to reach people. Our passion is the preservation of drive-in culture and the preservation of 35mm. That’s not something that is sole, there are plenty of people that share that love and want to go back to a simpler time, when it comes to film presentation.

I feel like it’s still connected to those roots being a retro drive-in and being the only drive-in in the country that’s all 35mm.

That has truly become our legend over the last nine years, going on 10 years, that we’ve gone retro. The theater has been able to survive and stay open throughout the entire run of its career, but it’s definitely seen some hard times. When we came in, in 2014, it was like five cars a night, just barely able to keep the lights on. Definitely functioning at a loss. When the studios really put the pressure on us to say, “If you don’t go digital, you’re out of luck.”, we put our heads together and were like, “We can’t do much worse.”, you know, if our back’s against the wall. So that’s when we made the decision to stick with 35mm as our sole format. More than anything it was out of necessity, because we truly didn’t have an option to go digital. It’s become our calling card. Our stance here is, the magic lies in the 35mm film. All of us growing up seeing movies on 35mm film, the appreciation for it has just grown to an insane fever pitch where we have people coming from all over the world to experience the love of it.

In the way that vinyl had a resurgence and other vintage formats have come back, 35mm is something that is unique and people look at as a special experience.

Yeah, it has the same appeal for sure. Just like nothing sounds like, you know that that vinyl record doesn’t have that lived in kind of feel. 35mm has that same pull for people. And we see the appreciation shifting, you know, from kids who could care less about 35mm to all the sudden being like, you know, 35mm fanatics. Coming in with film reels of their own trying to do the basement 35mm projection. It’s taken on such a life that is beyond inspiring for what we did and what we do.

At the time, I’m sure the studios thought that you were a little crazy for sticking with 35mm.

Yes, when I reached out to–I won’t say the studio–but one of the studios, I was asking them for pretty much information on how we could get 35mm from the studio. And he said, “If you’re sticking with 35mm, you’re going to be out of business within a year.” No sort of support. “The only suggestion I can give to you is go to digital as quick as possible.” That’s the same guy who knows me by first name and books a lot of our films for us out of the vaults. At this point, we work with every single major studio and beyond. We are connected with so many private collectors, which is kind of a secret film world, which we love. The fact that there are these people who collected 35mm over the years. Now that there’s this beacon of 35mm, they want to take it to the ultimate show place to be shown.

For those that don’t know what Exhumed Films is, what they do, and what your partnership looks like, could you share a little bit about that?

Absolutely. When we first went retro, it really became a challenge of where we were going to get these 35mm prints, especially ones that are genre deep cut titles that we love. We were blessed in that first year to connect with Harry Guerrero at Exhumed Films, who at that point had been doing retro shows for probably 20 years in the Philly and Jersey area, and specifically 35mm. He’s a humongous 35mm collector in the country. So that was really the kickoff of the partnership. We said, “Let’s try to do once a month showings here at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater with Exhumed, and see if we can find our footing as far as the the retro goes.” That’s when we really started with the themed events. That first year we started Zombie-Fest, we started Camp Blood, which are going on their 10th year. Really establishing these big fan shows, these weekend long shows, was very much a thing from the start. Having Harry there as a partner in crime to supply us with films was, again, such a destined situation for the Mahoning. Everything here has been such a weird, magical, right time at the right place situation. The fact that we were able to connect with Harry in that first year, just took us right away to another level. That fandom for both of us, and fan base for both of us, has grown immensely over the last 10 years. I think it’s been a mutual benefit for both of us.

If there’s another exhibitor out there, and let’s say they’re sitting on a 35mm projector that they’re not currently using, what is that whole process like?

What we did in 2015, right after we went retro, is we transferred back to a reel to reel system. So instead of the platter, which 90% of 35mm houses have, we run every 20 minutes with a physical changeover. So the projectionist is threading up every 20 minutes, physically changing over from one projector to another, which allows private collectors and now studios to want to work with us. They don’t want their prints cut, but to put them on a platter, you’d have to cut the heads off of them, and pretty much connect all the picture together in one shot. Here you have private collectors, who can retain the original appeal of their prints, and also be able to screen them without any problems at a professional theater.

I find that the transfer to 35mm, or for people who have the 35mm, there’s very little appeal on a financial level to want to do it. It goes against what the drive-in model is, which is try to run everything as efficiently as possible and boost those profits as much as possible. We invest into these shows for 35mm way more than a digital theater has to for any other screenings. Just to get these prints across the country, things like that. We’ve seen other theaters strike up their 35mm for special shows. We started doing interviews on our podcast with other drive-in owners and they’ve taken note and started doing some retro stuff, whether it’s digital or 35mm.

I just feel like it’s a slight movement in the culture. With Hollywood, everything being remakes and relying on you knowing the IP beforehand, we’re the ultimate IP house. You can come and spend the whole entire weekend with the Ghostbusters. I think it’s that appeal for theaters, that they really want to tap into. As somebody who ran the major indoor chains, as a general manager, it’s like renting a seat. It’s a really sad kind of experience when it comes to somebody who loves those midnight screenings and that fandom appeal of what movies used to have. I think there’s that as well. We’re bringing back the showmanship of cinema. I miss the days of those midnight screenings waiting in line when it was like a first shot. Now you have movies coming out on Wednesday afternoon as the early screening. The whole culture and landscape has shifted. I think that the Mahoning is like a preservation ground for a simpler time in cinema as well as America.

Yeah, you’re so right, because I think back to those midnight screenings and you had to wait outside before they let you in, and then you wanted to get that seat, get your concessions…

People in costumes and really leaning into the excitement of it. I did love that Regal and AMC did their best with fan events and these specialty Fathom Events and things like that, but it really was an eye opener, being immersed in it. What the Mahoning does and what the Mahoning is doing is trying to keep a piece of that original excitement for movies alive. Once COVID hit, it became that ultimate ground to stand on, when it was like “Are movie theaters going to survive?” Well, here’s this little theater that’s leaning into classic movies and the love of movies on the most pure level, and doing incredibly well. I think it was an inspiration for a lot of owners and people in the industry to say, “You know what, I’m gonna do my thing. I’m gonna take some shots”, which is maybe the ultimate inspiration for us, the fact that it has rippled across the landscape. This little theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania has made its mark in some way on the theatre industry, which is just mind bending.

What were those early days like? How did some of the elements that the Mahoning is now famous for begin? When did that really start to gain traction?

We found our footing in 2015 when we really started leaning into the commitment of retro film. The idea in 2014 was like, “Let’s give this a shot.” Seeing the success that we had immediately with it, at least in comparison to the first run [films]. It became a situation where it’s like, “Let’s go full on into this, now that we have the ability to play what we want, let’s really program what we want.” That’s when we started leaning into the ultimate weekend long fan immersive events. The guest elements of it, which is a humongous appeal for the Mahoning, the fact that we have Hollywood come in and embrace us, that started I’d say a year or two later, having some guests come in. I want to say Zach Galligan from Gremlins was one of our first guests that we ever had in 2017. We saw right away that it took the love and appreciation for what we were doing to a whole other level. That element got added in 2017.

Probably right around then, we started doing the sets as well, the photo ops that became a part of the show. When you came to Camp Blood for a Friday the 13th slasher event, there was also a camping themed photo op with Jason ready to slash you. People ate it up, to the point where we invested into that every single big show. The overnights, which I would say is a humongous sell for us, the fact that people can travel across the country, and then just stay the whole weekend with us, we offered that that first year. The very first retro show we did in 2014 also offered overnight camping. Having that I think really lent to the destination of it, where people didn’t hesitate to travel three, four, or five hours to come to us and spend a weekend. It made a lot more economical sense for them to come and spend a whole weekend for $20 instead of having to rent a hotel or cabin. That was another huge element. A lot of drive-ins will play music before show time, but we actually run a DJ booth from a retro DJ console in our projection booth, which plays retro themed music to the movies you’re about to experience. The guest appeal for sure, the overnighting for sure, the reel to reel happened almost instantly, a lot of that stuff got implemented right away. Then we’ve been figuring out how to best balance that and best offer that.

Your background in music also brought in the idea for the event poster, as if you were going to a concert.

I was still in my band and had been a singer and performer my entire life. The idea of bringing the showmanship back to movies, where you can come and get a poster, you can come and treat this very much like a rock concert, where you can come and get your event t-shirt and memorabilia. The quote I love using that really clicked with people is, “You can come and see your favorite star up on the screen.” Instead of your favorite artist up on the stage. It’s that same mentality, where you will do anything to see your favorite bands, even if it’s on a Wednesday and they’re coming to the area. We find that same appeal for people that make the trip out to us. It’s like “I am not missing the opportunity to see my rockstar up on the screen in 35mm.”

As much as the Mahoning team does and progressively pushes, I think a lot is owed to the fan base as well, the fans who embraced the Mahoning. It became a part of them. It really became a part of who they are and their lifestyle, how they look at the world and movies. I think it connected the community in a way that it hadn’t had in a long time. This area’s insanely rich with drive-in culture. We’re very lucky in that sense. Almost instantly, we felt this love and push for what we were doing, because it was unique, because it was rebel. We called ourselves the punk rock alternative drive-in for the first couple of years, and that mentality, I think is who we are. We’re little rascals. We are a group of friends who just want to put on an amazing show and have a great time with our buddies. That is infectious for somebody who loves cinema at its purest form.

I think the last time we spoke, you were prepping for an appearance by John Waters and a series of his films. What are some examples of the immersive installations and photo ops you’ve created this season for guests?

We did Babs trailer [from Pink Flamingos] for John Waters, which he was mind blown over. We had the great John Demmer, who’s a master carpenter, put together that set for us. This year specifically, we had the giant Godzilla up front which was definitely a biggie for Godzilla-Palooza, our Werewolf Weekend featured Frank Frazetta’s Werewolf, [The Frank Frazetta Art Museum] is fairly close to us in Stroudsberg, PA. The big choice sets, they are out of this world as far as the production value of them. I say they’re screen ready, you can shoot these sets for the actual movie. The team here and their love of what they do really propels these ideas over the top. And the fact that the fan base so appreciates it. We’ve seen our poster artists, our t-shirt artists, and our musicians who came to play grow to the point where they got somewhat discovered on the lot, they get jobs off of their work on the lot. It’s this fertile breeding ground for creatives, if that’s the right word. It’s a great element to what we offer, to have a momento to take away. In this picture or t-shirt or poster, or whatever it is.

We can’t talk about the Mahoning without talking about the curated food and beverage experience. What are some of the things you’ve been doing recently? What have been some of your favorite food and drink specials?

Beth, our concession manager, who we all call Mama Beth. She is a master when it comes to that concession stand, not just managing it and keeping the team there happy, but also leaning into the creativity with these specials. Having a themed eat that you can have while you’re watching your favorite movie, it just takes it to another level of madness. I love when we get really creative with existing items. That’s what we really used to do is start mixing some of the ingredients that we have already available together. I remember our Bill and Ted Most Excellent Burger had practically every menu item on it. It was french fries. It was nacho chips. It was mozzarella sticks on top of a cheeseburger. That one was pretty extreme. When we did Angus for our 90s event last year, we had a meatball concoction that was just amazing. That taste wise really stood out. Recently, we did the Haddonfield sandwich for our Halloween event. There are some amazing menu specials that we offer and we try to keep the names themed as well. It’s an extra pull for for people when they come.

What are the current challenges in exhibition for drive-ins, and specifically for the Mahoning as a 35mm retro drive-in?

The operating costs. I think that in general is just a way of the life now. Every year things increase, every year things go up. What we like to offer is the ultimate affordable experience. Keeping our prices very low, while still trying to find that profit margin that works for us. As a 35mm outfit, I’d say the hardest part is securing the 35mm film. There’s a lot of times when we will want to play a title and studios won’t have it or the condition of it is not up to snuff. Then we’ll go to our private collectors and nobody there has it. So we definitely have a ceiling as far as what we can do, depending on the availability. Now the opposite side of that is when we do find that one print, we can really lean into the idea that this is a one-of-a-kind, once in a lifetime screening. We do Tarantino-A-Go-Go! every year and work with Quentin directly, showing his prints–his private, personal prints. Having that clout and connection now with not only the industry, but the kings of industry, has really opened up those doors for us.

Besides that, the team mentality here has been insane. I look at all these people here as saviors to me. All of us being able to come together and make this happen has shifted my entire life and I owe my whole future and my family’s future to all of their dedication and their hard work every single weekend. Keeping that family unit tight and happy is always a challenge, but trying to keep that family mentality is really where my head is at with the Mahoning team moving into the future. The challenges shift here all the time, but they seem to get a little bit easier each year as far as finding our footing, with what works for us. One thing that I’ve learned being in the indoor industry and the drive-in industry, is every owner needs to have the ability to pivot and shift, whether it’s with Hollywood or the audience or the climate of the world. The Mahoning has been incredible at being able to pivot during the pandemic and beyond, to try to keep the appeal of what we do strong and alive. The fact that we grow every single year is the true inspiration to know that we are doing something right.

Looking ahead to the future to 2024, what do you have planned? What can you share with us?

Oh boy. Well, this is my favorite time of the year, wearing a different hat as the booker curator here. The planning of the shows is maybe my favorite thing to do, just knowing that we’re going to have these things in the cannon and when they shoot out and are announced, people’s brains are just going to explode. For next year, our first film ever shown was April Showers, which we’re looking to do as a 75th anniversary celebration screening this year for our diamond anniversary. We’re going to try to do that on National Drive-In Day, which would be a whole big celebration of the culture as well as what the Mahoning has been able to do over their run. We’re coming up on 10 years of Zombie-Fest, coming up on 10 years of Camp Blood, we’ll likely have humongous guests for both of those, not to spoil anything. We found a new annual event last year with Muppets Take Mahoning. One of our biggest events of 2023 was this Muppets event, which was backed by the Henson Company. Brian Henson actually came and did an intro for us, which is a mind blower. That was born into an annual, we’re going to lean into that one next year early in the season and really try to play it up as a weekend long run. But yeah, every year we do VHS Fest which is one of our biggest events. I love that event so much, that falls in July.

I want to do a King Kong event next year. We’re known for our Godzilla-Palooza, but something has a nice ring about Kong-A-Thon. We did lock John Waters in for an annual, so it looks like the Filthy Film Festival will be coming back on a regular basis every single year. So John Waters has found his drive-in home. The fact that it’s taken on a worldwide fandom to the point where John Waters knows who we are and loves us, it splits my brain in two. The 17-year-old me that was running the video store, you know? It’s almost unfathomable that we’ve been able to reach the heights that we have and the notoriety that we have by purely just following our hearts. We didn’t do anything special. We’re not anybody special who’s bred for this. We are a group of film loving filmmakers and creatives that found a way to make the drive-in more appealing in the modern age. It’s still one of those things I have to pinch myself every day and be like how did this dream come this true? When I was 13 years old, I was talking about, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to run a family drive-in one day?” with all my cousins, and for it to actually happen, it’s just insane. That’s thanks to the entire team and the entire community and everybody giving all that they can to the love of what the Mahoning represents, which is film, simple pure film fandom.

Courtesy of The Mahoning Drive-In Theater
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