New documentary highlights the plight of America’s iconic drive-ins

“I used to go to drive-ins with my family, and I saw fewer of them as I got older. I couldn’t understand why, because we still have cars, we still like movies, there seemed to be no reason to have them. are.” closed or dilapidated,” complained director April Wright, director of the documentary, Back to the drive thru.

It features eleven unique family businesses across the United States and looks at the plight of the industry and the struggle to keep it afloat. This is Wright’s second documentary on the iconic locations; the first, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Moviecame out in 2013 and covered their history. Back to the drive thru is now available On Digital & On Demand.

She wanted to do a follow-up focusing on the people they’re trying to keep alive, because “pretty much all of the drive-ins that are left are owned by a family. They serve their local communities.”

“I was actually at the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association Convention (UDITOA) in Orlando, Florida, in February of 2020 and told a lot of the owners there that I wanted to do this follow-up and if people wanted to be a part of it to help me to let you know,” Wright recalled. “About a month later, the pandemic hit, everything shut down, and drive-ins became the only show in town.”

The pandemic led some in the movie industry to embrace drive-ins and use them to premiere movies that couldn’t make it to shuttered theaters. Under was Universal Studios’ freaky, which premiered at the now-closed Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in Montclair, California, featured in the documentary. The directorial debut of actor-director Dave Franco, The rent, premiered at the Vineland Drive-In theater in City of Industry, California. Both events took place during the height of the 2020 pandemic.

However, it was not until the summer of 2021 that Wright took the field. Originally planning only three or four drive-ins, the filmmaker increased the number to eleven because she wanted to get a broader picture of what was going on in the countryside and near cities. It was a mixed picture.

“I’ve been in the business for 35 years now and there are a lot of reasons why drive-ins didn’t continue, but a big one had to do with the product and getting movies,” added John Vincent, the president. of UDITOA and owner-operator of Wellfleet Drive-In and movie theaters in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. “We were in the spotlight with the switch to digital, because that was quite an expensive switch about ten years earlier. persona non grata in the media until COVID hit.”

While the attention was appreciated and increased trade, Vincent admitted there was some frustration with the perception, but he has a theory.

“McDonald’s existed in the 1950s, indoor movie theaters existed in the 1950s, so why do we represent a bygone era?” he mused. “It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s only 10 percent or less of us left. I think that’s what makes us look like we’re classic, but it’s still a great way to go to a watch a movie, and that hasn’t changed.”

“It takes a certain type of person to run a drive-thru because it’s not an easy thing to do, so you have to have a passion for it,” Wright added.

While some drive-ins have been passed down through the generations, new blood is coming in despite the pressure and starting from scratch.

“Some younger people take over locations, but sometimes it’s an employee who has worked at the place for a long time that eventually takes over,” explains Wright. “There’s a connection to wanting to provide this experience and the good memories you want to share with other people that I think all owners have in common.”

“They’re very passionate about keeping them running and the value it brings to the community, but you might have to be a little crazy because there are a lot of obstacles.”

She added: “In any business where you deal with the public, you have to have a certain type of personality to deal with the public day in and day out. They are entrepreneurs. At their core, these are family businesses. you think of someone who wants to live that American dream and have a business, then that’s who these people are.”

The value offered by the pricing model also created additional audience appeal, brand new and recurring, with several spots in the documentary going all out with themes and special programming.

“It’s beyond the movie, it’s about the experience and the showmanship of it, and I tried to show him the movie in different ways,” Wright enthused. “All these different aspects of attracting people, from beer and food to dual features of performance spaces and family movies, are the bread and butter.”

Vincent added: “In indoor theaters, you go in, and it’s 100 percent about the movie; it’s a little bit about the experiences around sound, the screen, the nice seats, but in the drive-in, the experience is the biggest part of it. Actors and actresses have taken the stage at things like CinemaCon and said they remember their first drive-in movie, but not their first indoor movie.”

The rise in the profile of the pandemic also created opportunities for genre content distributors, with some films making box office history.

“During the pandemic, there was an increase in horror as less studio products came out, and some of these mini-majors did a good job of putting a lot of horror movies in drive-ins. I think it was one of the things that kept people going coming out during the pandemic,” said the filmmaker.

Vincent interjected: “Even then, some drive-ins do well with horror and always have, but some, like me, do terrible with it. We tried.’

However, times continued to be tough for some, with one participant in the documentary saying they only made a $5 profit one night.

“Everyone was overlooked during the pandemic when the studios finally got a chance to do what they wanted to test for a while, which was put movies directly on the streaming platforms,” ​​the filmmaker revealed. Most of them have now realized that’s not the best path for their new releases and their big movies in particular. I don’t think that worked out well financially for someone with one of their titles.”

“I feel like the studios are embracing again that there has to be a theatrical component, but I will say some of the terms are friendlier to the bigger movie theaters that have had more leverage in terms of how many weeks things have to stay on screens and so on.”

Wright continued, “If you’re talking about drive-ins, independent movie theaters, single-screen theaters, especially if they’re in a more rural area and you have to keep the same movie on screen for three or four weeks, those places and they’re having a hard time to make.”

She would like to see multiple levels of terms, or different sets of terms, depending on the location. “That could make a big difference,” she suggested. “The model is not designed for drive-ins and many of these independent movie theaters.”

In some cases, studios are requiring three weeks on the major single-screen titles and theaters, drive-ins, and indoors. Drive-ins, however, continue to innovate and find new ways to generate additional revenue from traditional moneymakers like concessions and by developing cool merchandise.

“As with the indoor theaters, the most important thing when it comes to revenue is the concessions, but the merchandise is a little more recent and gaining momentum,” Wright confirmed. “Almost every drive-in has its t-shirts or hats and things like that. It’s a unique revenue channel and they’ve leaned on it.”

“These places have become a destination that people want to visit and get a memento. You wouldn’t go to an AMC theater and think I should leave with a t-shirt that says AMC, but you’d go to the Wellfleet Drive- and think I’d like a t-shirt to remind you of the good time you had there.”

“It’s all tied together. We can’t pay 100 percent movie rentals and live on concession revenue; we couldn’t just do the movies with excellent movie rental rates and have no concessions. It’s all a big piece of the pie. But the pandemic also hit so hard,” Vincent lamented. “There were some jurisdictions that banned concession sales in 2020.”

“Fortunately, we were all doing retro screenings at the time, and bluntly, instead of 50 to 60 percent, we were down to 30 or 40 percent, so that helped. Merchandise sales become a bigger piece of the puzzle. Our sales of merchandise has increased from five percent of concessions to ten percent of concessions in the past two years. We just set up an online store and even set up a fulfillment center on our property to meet demand.”

Wright’s documentary Back to the drive thru is not a point at the end of this cultural and commercial sense.

“We’re definitely in the middle of a transition, not just for drive-ins but also for the movie industry. Last summer Top gun: Maverick really helped, but everything else went well, and we’re still not back where we were,” she said. .”

“We’ve also seen more drive-ins change hands in the last two years than we have in the last 30 years in terms of loss or new owners taking over, but there are also a ton of drive-ins that haven’t been open for decades that coming back and new ones being built from the ground up.”

Wright continued: “I’m optimistic, even though we know that the numbers are down compared to the start of the pandemic, and we’re lower than they were at the start, but I’m optimistic that they could go up again in the next three years. ” to five years.”

“Give us the movies and the people will come. Things will correct,” added Vincent. “2023 isn’t there in terms of schedule, although there are some great movies coming out this summer. We’re excited about it Mission: impossible dead reckoning and the new Indiana Jones, but 2024 looks fantastic. In a way, I’m almost glad the Band-Aid has been lifted on the streaming nonsense. They have learned their lesson that there is nothing that can bring in as much money as transaction income.”

He concluded: “I think drive-ins will be here for a very long time, but so will the pressures, including rising land prices. I’d rather open a drive-in from scratch than an indoor movie theater right now, and I have having other operators tell me that we had some indoor operators enter the drive-in area.

“I’m sure there are several indoor operators I’ve talked to, including one of my local indoor competitors, who would love to do this. They’re just looking for the right opportunity. We can make the studios a lot of money, and it can be a good thing if done right.”

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