Drive In Movies
GOING ATTRACTIONS: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie
by April Wright -Director, Going Attractions
About April: I spent 7 years traveling to every state except Alaska and visiting drive-in locations in order to make this movie. It’s played in theaters (a lot of drive-ins and some indoors), and it’s now on cable TV on-demand and iTunes, and all over the place. I worked closely with the drive-in owners and the film is definitely helping to raise awareness about drive-ins and inspire people to support them.
Once a vibrant part of American culture, nearly 5000 drive-ins once dotted the nation from big cities to small towns, but today less than 400 remain. In a nation that loves cars and movies, why haven’t they survived?
GOING ATTRACTIONS examines the drive-in theatre as an integral part of American culture from its invention in 1933, to its peak in the late 50s, to the rapid decline in the 70s and 80s, through the recent resurgence. By looking at the drive-in, we see the story of changing American culture and family over the last 60 years.
Statement from the Director APRIL WRIGHT in May 2013 upon completing the film:
It’s been a long journey. I first had the idea for a drive-in documentary in the 90s, before I was making films, and when there were about 1,000 drive-ins left in the U.S. In 2005 after I’d switched careers and was working in the film biz, the idea of making a documentary and drive-ins kept coming up. When I looked back into the idea, there were only 500. I was afraid if I didn’t make this movie now, there would be none left.
I did a lot of research in 2005, and spring of 2006 I took my first road trip through the southwest to see what I would find. I shot for several years taking multiple cross-country road-trips and visiting every state (except Alaska). Then I embarked on interviewing the right people to tell the story of the drive-in from the son of the inventor, to the family that made the famous intermission trailers, to a film historian, a sociologist, drive-in owners, and Roger Corman.
The economy took a dive and I ran out of funding which lengthened the post-production process. But last night at Universal Studios Digital Services, we finished the final steps. Seven years after my first road trip to shoot drive-ins, the movie is done.
But there is an unexpected side effect to the delay – 2013 is the 80-year anniversary of the invention, and many drive-ins are converting to digital this season. In any other year, most drive-ins would not have been able to play Going Attractions, but now they can.
What’s better than watching a movie of the full story of the drive-in, under the stars at a drive-in, in this special anniversary year? This is a time to celebrate and I’m so glad Going Attractions can be part of the celebration!
PROJECT SUMMARY/BACKGROUND ON TOPIC
Director April Wright went to drive-ins growing up in northern Illinois. When they started closing in the 80s, she became fascinated with abandoned drive-ins. These massive structures with elaborate marquees and the largest movie screens in the world, now sat idle, empty, becoming worn and decrepit. What happened?
When she first considered this question in the late 90s, there were still about 1,000 drive-ins operating in the United States. A few years later the topic kept entering her consciousness. When she checked back into it, she learned there were less than 500 drive-ins left, and dropping rapidly. In just a few years, the total had been cut in half. She knew the project couldn’t wait any longer.
She studied this topic diligently since 2005, traveling to every state except Alaska to film almost 500 open, abandoned, and former sites of drive-ins so that she could understand what really happened. She discovered several things she didn’t know when she started the project. First, drive-ins truly are a cultural icon in the United States. You bring up the topic and people have a visceral response and vivid memories. There is a universal connection and love for the drive-in across all demographics, which makes their disappearance even more confusing.
She also learned at the peak there were nearly 5000 drive-ins. If you consider that today a massive summer release such as the latest Superman movie goes to about 3900 screens – and that’s with it playing on multiple screens at multi-plexes, you’re still nowhere close to the number of drive-in screens at the peak. Today over 95% of these theatres are gone. In most cases they’ve been demolished, but not always. This is what raised another question. People say drive-ins disappeared because of increasing land values. Maybe in some cases this is true – but then why are so many left abandoned around the country? Or sit as empty, undeveloped lots?
She learned the rise and fall of the drive-in is completely dependent on cultural changes. They grew out of a convergence of several factors, and succeeded despite numerous problems. They were a phenomenon that sustained fairly well for about a 40 year period. Then a new convergence of cultural factors led to their rapid decline. By studying the drive-in, we’re really examining how the country has changed significantly over the last 60 years, and in many ways not for the better.
As we visit each era of the drive-in, we examine significant sociological changes that affected the nation. Starting with US car culture after WWI when soldiers were returning to buy cars and homes in the suburbs. Eisenhower approved funding to create our national freeway system that didn’t exist until the late 50s. The baby boom created a demographic that would influence everything. They became the first generation of ‘teenagers’ with their own music, movies, and culture. Television became available to every home, mostly in B&W until the early 70s, which influenced how families spent their time. Everything changed in the late 60s with assassinations and Viet Nam when the country’s innocence was lost. Followed by the economic turndown, gas crisis and no-fault divorces in the 70s which tore apart the traditional family. By the time you get to the early 80s, things like computers, video games, cable and home video would lay the groundwork for the future, and become the final blows to a suffering drive-in industry.
But in the new millennium, something else is happening. The final thing Director April Wright realized making this film, is that there is a major resurgence now within the drive-in industry. Of the remaining open drive-ins, approximately 25% are old drive-ins that have been restored and re-opened, or new drive-ins that have been built from scratch. And many of these are operating with two or more screens. The new popularity is inspired by people across the country who are interested in returning to family values and a more innocent time. In addition, the studios seem to be making more family-friendly films than ever. These new drive-in owners are risking everything to keep the drive-in alive so this experience can be shared with future generations.
But despite this resurgence and actions by preservationists, an equal number of drive-ins are still being closed and demolished each year, so the total number is not increasing. In fact, the number of open theaters is slowly decreasing as the industry looks ahead to digital cinema and wonders which of them will survive.
From April’s dedication to this topic, she’s become part of the community of drive-in owners and enthusiasts, recognized as an expert on the topic.
GOING ATTRACTIONS is the definitive story of the drive-in movie. A product of post World War II optimism, the drive-in movie theater emerged as the perfect blend of entertainment and car culture. Fueled by the baby boom, drive-ins became an integral part of the American teenage experience.
But in the late 60s the culture changed drastically in the United States, sending the drive-in business into a downward spiral for almost three decades with successive blows from political and economic conditions and new inventions like the multi-plex and home video.
But today, there is a drive-in resurgence, driven by families who want to return to more simple times, just like the families who made drive-ins popular to begin with. By studying the changes affecting the drive-in’s dramatic rise, decline and rebirth, we discover how much American culture and family have evolved in the last 60 years.
The visual style of this film is not like a traditional documentary with lengthy commentary by talking heads intercut with old B&W photos. There are old photos of course, but most of the film is original, new footage with a quick-cut storytelling style, layered imagery and modern graphics.
In addition to the visuals from across the country, the film includes great interviews with insightful perspectives from all sides of the topic including:
• a Film Historian from the American Film Institute who gives perspective on films as a reflection of culture and audience in each era
• Roger Corman, prolific independent filmmaker whose films often played as double features for the teen audience at drive-ins
• a Sociologist from the University of Southern California who focuses on teen culture in the United States and changing family demographics from the nuclear family of the 50s through present day
• the CEO of Filmack who makes movie intermission and snack bar trailers including the famous dancing hot dog featured in the movie GREASE
• former President of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association and owner of the oldest open drive-in theatre in continuous operation since 1934
• the son of the man who invented the drive-in in 1933
• a woman who is a 3rd generation drive-in owner and operator, taking over the business from her grandfather and father to operate several of the remaining multi-screen drive-ins in the US
• the woman who founded www.drive-ins.com, the largest website for drive-in fans, and most extensive database striving to collect information and a photograph of every drive-in that ever existed
• a drive-in enthusiast in Wisconsin who collects historic drive-in newspaper ads from all over the country, and who petitioned to have a historical marker placed in the former site of his favorite drive-in after it was demolished
• a couple in North Carolina who purchased a drive-in theater on eBay
• a representative from a grass-roots drive-in movie society in Southern California that strives to let the public know that drive-ins are still alive and a great family experience
• a community activist in upstate New York who was campaigning against Wal-Mart to save his local drive-in movie theatre from being demolished and replaced with a store
The story of the drive-in is told in segments that examine each era of the drive-in from its inception through the present day. Each section is a collage of visuals, audio and music blending original footage of drive-ins from all over the United States, interviews, graphics, photographs and archival footage.
The point of view focuses on placing the drive-in within the context of other relevant political, economic and social changes the nation was going through. These broader issues reflected changing ideals within American culture, and ultimately impacted the drive-in as a form of entertainment and social exchange.
Drive-ins are important to people. Perhaps best stated when Forest Whitaker won his Oscar, he described what many of us experienced, “As a kid, the only way I saw movies was from the backseat of my family’s car at the drive-in.”
They are an especially hot topic right now across the country and around the world because of the 80-year anniversary of the invention of the drive-in in 1933 and the challenge of making the expensive conversion to digital projection. A cultural movement is emerging among drive-in enthusiasts and families who want to return to simpler times and values. This film reflects the feelings of people who believe this American icon is worth saving for future generations.
In their heyday, drive-ins were a common experience for most baby boomers in their teen years. Now entering retirement age, this film tells their story. It’s not only about drive-in memories, but the significant cultural changes in their lifetime. There are millions in this demographic with interest in sharing their experiences with children and grandchildren.
But the film also helps to put things into perspective for the younger generations like my nieces and nephew. It’s hard for kids today to imagine that all the things they accept today as normal, are really quite recent developments. When the drive-in was at its peak, imagine a country with no cell phones, no computers, no internet, no video games and televisions that were B&W and about 20 inches wide. There wasn’t a national freeway system. There were no credit cards. Commercial air travel was limited. There were no shopping malls, warehouse stores, or chain stores. There were no multi-plexes. There was no Starbucks, and McDonald’s only had a few locations.
We would hope after viewing the film that people will have an increased awareness of the world we live in and perhaps a greater appreciation for traditional values. We live in such a high-speed time, it’s easy to get caught up and lose sight of what’s important. And we hope that people would also feel inspired to support their local drive-ins and the entrepreneurs who operate them.
Visit going attractions web site at www.goingattractions.com
Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie
Q: Are there any drive-ins left?
A: There were about 350 left in the US at the end of last summer, but no one’s sure how many will return for the 2014 season because of the cost to convert to digital projection. It’s about $75,000 for drive-ins, plus the cost to build a ‘clean room’ that’s climate controlled. Some drive-in owners may decide to get out of the business rather than make that investment. At the end of 2013 about 100 drive-ins had already converted to digital, the other 250 were in limbo.
Q: Why did you (Director April Wright) want to make this movie?
A: I went to drive-ins growing up, and later became fascinated with the architecture of closed drive-ins in the 80s and 90s wondering what the massive screen towers and neon marquees must have looked like in their heyday. I wanted to find out what happened to the drive-ins. We love cars and we love movies, so why didn’t they survive?
Q: Are drive-ins a thing of the past?
A: Absolutely not. One thing I didn’t know when I started making the movie, is that a drive-in resurgence is happening all over the country. Since the year 2000, over 30 old drive-ins have been re-opened, and over 35 have been built from scratch, but an equal number are being demolished each year, so all the new ones aren’t being reflected in the statistics. And almost all the remaining open drive-ins had record seasons in 2013.
Q: Why have drive-ins have been more popular lately?
A: I think it’s a combination of things. First there are a lot of people around the country who are hungry for the simple things in life and clean activities the whole family can enjoy. There’s also more press and interest in drive-ins thanks to the internet – some drive-ins have over 30,000 Facebook fans, so it’s easy for people to share their drive-in experiences. Also things like the Honda Project Drive-in campaign helped to bring awareness to the threat and expense of digital conversion. But it’s also the films that Hollywood is making right now. All the animated and superhero movies are very family-friendly and play very well for a drive-in audience.
Q: Is there one part of the country where there are more drive-ins?
A: Yes. New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio seem to be a three way tie for the most, followed by Texas and California. This usually surprises people because of the cold climate, but it mostly has to do with population. These were the states that always had the most drive-ins. Of course they once had several hundred drive-ins and now they’re down to about 30.
Q: How many drive-ins did you visit to make this film?
A: I took several cross-country road trips and visited over 500 open and abandoned drive-ins, and in some cases if there were good photographs of a drive-in available, I visited the former location to see what was there today. I set out to make the definitive story of the drive-in, so I wanted to visit and include every single state. I ended up visiting every state except Alaska. And yes, Alaska did have drive-ins! They went over especially well during the time of year when it’s dark around the clock.
Q: Is the cost of digital projection going to kill the drive-ins?
It’s definitely a large cost to make the conversion. And it’s more expensive for drive-ins because their projection rooms are outside, so aside from the cost of the projector itself, they have to construct a climate controlled, dust free room. But the picture is a lot better with digital, because it cuts through the issue of residual light – even if it’s not completely dark, you get a perfect image on screen just like watching something in HD in your living room at home, except it’s on one of the largest screens in the world. Drive-in screens are usually larger than the typical Imax screen, except you’re outside under the stars. Combine that with FM radio sound, and you have a movie presentation that can be a lot better than a lot of people probably remember at the drive-in.