Going Attractions: April Wright documents dwindling drive-ins
To date, director April Wright’s documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie has played in 40 theater–both indoor cinemas and drive-ins. Wright stopped at some 500 sites when making the movie and interviewed a number of drive-in experts, including horror film director Roger Corman. She recently phoned from her Los Angeles home to take about the film, which she is self-distributing.
You started thinking about the legacy of the drive-in theater back in the ’90s. What made you want to make a movie about the subject?
I went to drive-ins growing up and I really like unusual architecture so I always liked drive-ins for that reason. When I lived in Chicago and then moved to L.A., there were many drive-ins that were shut down. I would stop to look at them. They were so big and had such great neon signs. I didn’t know how anyone could let them fall into disrepair. I always had a fascination. I remember I was looking at articles and books and thought it would make an interesting movie. There were about 1,000 drive-ins then. Right about the time my first script was being shot in 2005, there were only about 500 left. I thought I needed to make the film because they might be gone soon. That’s the whole trajectory. Had I thought it through, how much effort and time it would have taken, I would have thought twice about it. Once I started though, I felt an obligation to the subjects.
Do you have a distinct drive-in memory from your youth?
Not really. It was something we did all the time. I can remember trying to sneak looks at bad horror movies. I remember seeing part of Orca, which was a Jaws rip-off, and Grizzly, which was another Jaws rip-off. I also remember seeing Burt Reynolds in Sharky’s Machine.
How many drive-ins did you visit on your cross-country trip in 2006?
I ended up taking several trips. First, I did a short trip through the Southwest just to check the concept and see what I would find. I did that in the spring and then in the summer, I went cross-country and back on the southern route. And then in the summer of 2007, I did the northern route. It was multiple trips over a three-year period to get all the footage. I ended up visiting 500 total locations. I went to operating theaters, abandoned ones and former sites to see what’s there now. As a nice side effect, I had visited 32 states when I started the project and now I’ve been to 49. Most of drive-ins aren’t near major cities, so it was an interesting way to see the country. I was driving across the United States by going from little town to little town.
I know you didn’t make to Alaska, but do they have drive-ins?
They had about 30 total up there. They were popular in the time of the year when it stays dark. I haven’t been up there to see what’s left. I want to get there eventually.
How difficult was it to get your interview with Roger Corman?
It wasn’t difficult at all. There was a theater in L.A. showing a couple of his films. He was going to come and do an introduction. I went to the theater. I told him about my documentary. He said, “If you want to interview me, just call my office.” I didn’t ask him. He just volunteered. He knew he was part of that story. I did the interview and a couple of days later, they gave him an honorary Oscar. I called him after that to congratulate him. He’s somebody I know now. He’s great. He’s such a generous person. People describe him as cheap, but if someone wanted to do something and had a vision, he wouldn’t tell them no. That’s how he gave these filmmakers their first opportunities. He’s left such a legacy on the industry.
What’s it been like introducing your film?
That’s the best part of it. I’ve lived with the film for so many years. I looked at it a million times. I love seeing it with an audience and hearing people react. They want to tell me their drive-in stories. The cool thing is that people presume that Baby Boomers will appreciate the films the most because it brings up memories but strangely the people who come to me are young and they’re so inspired. They feel like they’ve been missing out. They get really excited about it, more than the older people.
What do you see as the future of the drive-in?
That’s a great question. We’re at that juncture where nobody knows. At the time I started the film there were 500 and now there are 350. While the numbers have been going down, since the year 2000 about 35 have reopened and some 40 new ones have been built. The challenge right now is the conversion to digital projection. Those cost about $75,000 a piece and drive-ins have an additional cost because they have to build a climate controlled room. They have to have an air-conditioned room that doesn’t have dust. At this point, about 200 have converted to digital. The other 150 are trying to raise money and stay on film as long as they can. We’ll see. Nobody knows which direction it will go.
If they convert, they can show 3-D, right?
They could but it doesn’t work at the drive-in because of polarization in the windshields. A few have tried it. But the other problem is that the screens are so huge, not everyone can see the 3-D. But they can show newer releases. Earlier this year, there was a drive-in Texas that held a Jimmy Buffett concert as a fundraiser. Because of the digital projection, they were able to broadcast it out to 85 or 90 other drive-ins. There are things like that. I know some owners will hook up their Xboxes and play video games on the big screen. The digital projection improves the picture. Drive-ins crowded by cities did experience trouble with glare but digital projection has helped the quality of the image.