Back to the Drive-In

If you’re of a certain age, you probably have at least one special memory of going to a drive-in movie theater. I vividly remember my parents going to one to see Deliverance and expecting 4-year-old me to sleep in the back of the car while they watched. Nope. I kept popping my head up to see what was happening on that screen. The outdoor setting is unique for movie-watching. It creates a kind of community, as many people come out of their vehicles to sit on chairs and socialize before the show starts. Drive-ins are a dying breed, although a lucky few hold on. A handful of them are the subject of Back to the Drive-In, a documentary about how these theaters are faring in the wake of Covid.

Director April Wright takes us to eleven drive-ins all across the country, including L.A.’s famous Mission Tiki and Baltimore's legendary Bengie’s. There’s another one called the Field of Dreams that a guy and his wife built in their backyard, not unlike the baseball diamond Kevin Costner builds in the film that inspired the drive-in’s name. The film was shot mostly in 2021. Covid restrictions created an unexpected boom in the outdoor exhibition business. People actively sought entertainment when most traditional businesses faced mandated closures. Once indoor theaters resumed operation, the drive-ins saw attendance decrease again. Now they struggle to maintain a customer base.

Owners and operators discuss those challenges and others. The movie is packed with enlightening stories about the problems drive-ins face. Storms and fog can keep people away or obscure vision. Wind can destroy the screens. Unruly customers can rebel against basic Covid protections like mask-wearing in the bathroom. Pandemic-related inflation forces them to jack up their prices. Profit is sometimes insufficient to make necessary upgrades possible. One theater has a train that runs behind the screen every night at 9:45, impeding people’s ability to hear the film they’re watching.

Interviewees additionally discuss their programming strategies, as well as how people of younger generations, many of whom never really frequented drive-ins, have to literally be instructed on what to do (how to park, how to tune in the sound, etc.). Those anecdotes are consistently compelling. They’re accompanied by an excess of beautiful drive-in footage that will have you clamoring to attend an outdoor theater. The magic of the drive-in experience is vividly captured here, from the communal ambiance to the super-wide array of items available at the snack bar.

On the down side, Back to the Drive-In is not very artfully made. Wright bounces randomly from one theater to another, with virtually no structure or organization of theme. She also over-relies on drone shots, which become repetitive. The behind-the-scenes glimpse at drive-in ownership keeps the documentary sufficiently interesting, though. Anyone who cherishes the idea of drive-in theaters will find enough here to hold their attention and make them hope that the industry will find a way to hang in there.

out of four

Back to the Drive-In is unrated, but contains brief mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.