Back to the Drive-In documentary is warm, nostalgic and eye-opening

Back to the Drive-In - Courtesy October Coast
Back to the Drive-In - Courtesy October Coast /

Filmmaker April Wright brings us a new documentary called Back to the Drive-In, and it’s a heartfelt look at the joys and hardships of running a drive-in theatre. While you might expect a documentary about drive-ins to be somewhat historical in tone, Back to the Drive-In takes an up- close and very heartfelt look at the current state of these often nostalgic businesses.

Many of us had some of our earliest and best horror movie experiences at drive-in theaters. I think that’s an article for another time; an article I am determined to write after watching this film.

As we all know, drive-in theatres had a renaissance of sorts when COVID shut-downs and rules were put in place. Regular theaters were closed for a while, then had to re-open at diminished capacities, people were going stir-crazy from stay at home orders, and our very lives seemed to be completely upended.

That’s when drive-ins became popular again. In my area (Central Florida), “pop-up” drive-ins were going up everywhere. Movies were projected on buildings, and people would bring their own chairs, where they could practice social distancing while still enjoying a film in a group setting.

And, yes, the established drive-ins began to see a boon in business. But, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as they faced challenges with the supply chain, staffing, and even unusually demanding customers. After being stuck in lockdowns and most likely being laid off from work, patrons were, as one of the drive-in owners says, “aggressive.”

There’s a moment in the film when an owner is reading an online review of their theater, and the reviewer says good things about the experience, except that a train came through during the film they were watching. In this person’s opinion, the drive-in staff should “coordinate” their intermission to happen during the time the train comes through. Did you just roll your eyes? So did I.

Back to the Drive-In
Back to the Drive-In – Courtesy October Coast /

Back to the Drive-In introduces to 11 different drive-in theaters across 8 states, and we learn about them through the voices of their owners, staff and patrons. They are family run, like the Brazos in Texas, which has been in business since 1952.

Several of them are now managed by employees who have worked for them since they were teenagers, and Field of Dreams in Ohio was basically built in the owner’s back yard in 2007. There is a fierce determination and passion uniformly present in the people who own and run these unique theaters, even if some of them seem a bit wistful about it now.

The owners and managers monitor weather anxiously, and have to be concerned about rain, lightning, and in the case of the Wellfleet in Massachusetts, thick fog. There, it’s considered bad luck to even say the word, so it’s referred to as “the f-word.”

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this fascinating doc, and seeing some of those old concession stands looking pretty much like they did 40 years ago took me back to my childhood. Even though the actual concessions have changed some, it all still looks the same.

At the Greenville in New York, they often host theme nights for favorite films like The Big Lebowski. They serve White Russians in the biergarten area and offer cookies decorated to look like The Dude and Walter Sobchak.

One of the theaters included in the film is the iconic Mission Tiki, which opened in 1956. During COVID, BeyondFest was held at the historic drive-in. It was sold to developers in 2019, and finally closed for good very recently. The message contained in the warm, loving atmosphere of Back to the Drive-In is clear: If you are lucky enough to live in close proximity to a drive-in theater, please support it. There is nothing quite like the experience, and it really is an American institution. Having watched this documentary, I would love to see it again on an outdoor screen!

Back to the Drive-In releases on digital platforms March 14, and comes to us from Uncork’d Entertainment.

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