Two years ago, I raved about the documentary “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story,” directed by April Wright. She got in touch to thank me for my kind words, and a few weeks ago, emailed to tell me she’d done a new doc, “Back To The Drive-In,” and invited me to watch a screener. I did, and enjoyed it quite a bit.
Its basic theme is that, unliked their brick-and-mortar cousins, drive-in movie theaters thrived during the pandemic, because people wanted to get out of the house for some entertainment without worrying about sharing air in an auditorium.
You’ll remember in 2020, the first year of COVID, not many new movies were released by the Hollywood studios. So, without current product to show, the drive-in owners had to come up with older material that would have family appeal.
As Wright documents, they did a great job and attracted lots of customers. But since then, once the world began opening up thanks to vaccines, the mostly mom-and-pop outlets have struggled to draw customers and keep the American tradition of outdoor moviegoing alive.
Wright showcases eleven drive-ins across eight states, and lets the owners and staff tell the stories of odd goings-on, tough economic realities, and longtime devoted staff members. She uses drone footage for a nice full perspective on the valuable land these theaters sit on, which draws interest from developers who have a different vision for the locations.
“Back To The Drive-In” is a return to an industry Wright covered in her 2013 documentary, “Going Attractions.” Unfortunately, most of the last decade was not good to the owners, who are not big corporations like AMC or Regal. Drive-ins are mostly multiple-generation family-run enterprises that stumble from one year to the next, dealing with bad weather, declining attendance, and severe staff shortages along the way — not to mention supply chain problems leading to a dearth of popcorn boxes.
While I admire Wright’s style (particularly those drone shots) and her love of these places, “Back To The Drive-In” gets a little redundant because the sagas of the theaters and their personnel are too similar to justify its 105-minute runtime. Still, the documentary is an informed inside look at the business of drive-in owners — and customers who still enjoy taking the family (including kids in feetie pajamas) to sit in their cars and look up at a big screen.
Like the old movies the drive-ins were forced to run during the pandemic, “Back To The Drive-In” invokes some warm nostalgic feelings, and it’s clear Wright knows and loves the industry. So, I’m giving it a 7 out of 10. Now playing in theaters (including non-drive-ins, ironically!).
Previously on Harris Online: