After a brief resurgence in popularity during the height of pandemic-era social distancing, many drive-in theaters are again in dire financial straits. Documentary filmmaker April Wright is making a plea to save these endangered throwback movie venues with her latest project, Back to the Drive-In.
“It didn’t matter how big or small they were, old or new, they were all going through the same issues,” Wright says. “I just wanted to see how much effort goes into keeping them alive.”
North Texans are uniquely positioned to listen. Three drive-ins within a 70-mile radius of downtown Dallas are among the subjects of Wright’s documentary, which is being released this weekend at select theaters around the country. And each is distinguished in its own way.
“There are three completely different drive-ins within driving distance of each other,” she says. “They all showed different aspects of the experience.”
The Brazos in Granbury is a 70-year-old single-screen classic location that still has its original screen tower. The Galaxy in Ennis has expanded since 2004 to become one of the largest drive-ins with seven screens. In Fort Worth, the relatively modern Coyote is one of the few to serve alcohol.
Wright, whose other recent movie-focused films have focused on aging movie palaces and Hollywood stuntwomen, planned a follow-up to her 2013 effort, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie, prior to the onset of the pandemic. But like all of us, Wright was forced to pivot.
“After that film, the number [of drive-ins] continued to dwindle, so I wanted to do something that focused more on the owners, because they’re all family-owned,” Wright says. “They’re very passionate people. They’re entrepreneurs providing a gathering place for their community. They all seem very resilient and determined.”
In 2020, Wright expanded her intended regional focus and took a solo five-week road trip from Los Angeles to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and back, making dozens of stops at drive-in theaters across the country, including the three in North Texas. With no crew and a drone as her second camera, she says the do-it-yourself approach wound up fitting the subject matter.
The proprietors she met along the way form the heart of the film, some reminiscing about nostalgia and others cautiously optimistic about the future.
Wright’s film, which will debut on digital platforms later this fall after a limited theatrical run, conveys an urgency in its desire to perpetuate the enduring charm of the drive-in experience.
“It’s in the title—go back to the drive-in,” she says. “A lot of people went back to the drive-in during the pandemic, and now that we are coming out of the pandemic, they need to not forget the drive-in. You need to go there if you want it to stick around.”