‘Back to the Drive-In’ Highlights Theaters’ Growing Problem

The lockdown made drive-ins popular, but what happens now?

by Patricia Henderson
Back to the Drive-In

With the rise of COVID-19 shutting down indoor movie theaters, drive-ins saw something of a rebirth in 2020-21. It was the only option for entertainment for many people. A way to both go out and social distance. Even some of our local parks and churches held drive-in movie nights with inflatable screens.

The new documentary, Back to the Drive-In is about that uptick in business, the challenges of navigating pandemic restrictions, and the drop in attendance once indoor (or “hard top”) theaters reopened. It presents its topics in a very human and accessible way, and is generally an enjoyable watch.


Many of us have memories of going to drive-in movie theaters in our youth. For me, it was basically a weekly occurrence up until my mid-teens. Our local drive-in always had double features: the first movie a new release, the second a bit older. I loved the drive-in and all its quirks, especially that clunky metal speaker that went on the car window. Something about that thing made it feel like an experience. Or maybe I’m just weird.

During those years, however, I never put much thought into how it all works, or the people involved. That’s where Back to the Drive-In comes in. It enlightens us about the ins and outs of the business. How the sausage is made, if you will.

The Drive-Ins

The film, from director April Wright, visits 11 drive-in theaters spread across eight states (and a handful more during the closing credits). We meet the owners, their employees, and families. We learn some technical aspects, such as projection systems, how the screens were assembled, and so on. Each drive-in featured has its own way of doing things, its own challenges (sometimes based on location), and its own personality.

For instance, Field of Dreams in Liberty City, Ohio is literally run from the owners’ backyard. Granted, said “backyard” is acres of land, but it’s still pretty unusual. The owners do much of the work themselves, including co-owner Rod Saunders grilling hamburgers and hot dogs for the patrons. Another unique feature of Field of Dreams is the bands that play on the grounds prior to the movies being shown.

Greenville, New York has a drive-in aptly named Greenville, that features a beer garden with themed drink specials. For instance, when the movie being shown was The Big Lebowski, the special was a White Russian.

Quasar in Valley, Nebraska is owned by an architect and her husband, leading to a design that wins a lot of compliments.

The drive-in from Wellfleet, Massachusetts (also named Wellfleet) has to contend with Cape Cod’s fog problem. There are some tense moments where they don’t know whether they’ll have a visible screen or not. In the end, it was clear enough, but many customers were kept away.

What I Enjoyed

The appeal of Back to the Drive-In is in its subjects. Each person featured has their own character traits that make them interesting to watch. Some are endearingly soft-spoken, such as Jennifer Miller from Brazos in Granbury, Texas. Some are delightfully animated, such as D. Edward Vogel from Bengies in Middle River, Maryland. Even though these people all have drive-in ownership in common, they are very different from each other.

What I also enjoyed was the way each theater was shown counting down to showtime. Getting food prepped, greeting customers, and interacting with family and employees, as the skies became darker. It was well done.

What I Didn’t Care For

This is admittedly a nitpick, but that’s sort of my job here. The score is kind of hit or miss in Back to the Drive-In. Sometimes it was perfectly fitting, and other times it was a bit distracting. Dramatic (almost sad) during conversations about ordinary tasks, or sweeping and epic-sounding at times that didn’t really call for it. As I said, this is a nitpick, as it wasn’t a big issue.


Each location expressed their hopes, concerns, disappointments, and joys. It was refreshing to hear people being so open and truthful. Not everything is sunshine and popcorn. The fact is many theaters are struggling to remain open. From lack of attendance, to staffing issues, to the popularity of streaming platforms. Sadly, several of the owners featured in this documentary are either retiring, or contemplating it. They just can’t stay afloat.

Aggressive Customers

During the segments featuring Brian Smith from the Coyote in Fort Worth, Texas, he relays some surprising information. Apparently, people forgot etiquette during lockdown, and acted out when they came to the drive-in. Smith says prior to the lockdowns, there was maybe once a year when they’d have “negative interaction” with a customer. During COVID-19 restrictions, it was happening every weekend. Smith had his life threatened, had rocks thrown at him, and most commonly, had young staff members cussed out. Two customers went so far as to urinate in the pavilion, in protest of having to wear masks in the bathrooms. Never a dull moment at the drive-in, it seems.


I would recommend this documentary. It looks behind the “drive-ins are back!” headlines, and explores some hard truths. The fact is many theaters (both drive-in and “hard top”) are struggling, and need our support. With so many movies being made available to stream at home, going to the theater is becoming more rare. Please support your local drive-in, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Patricia Henderson @phendersonwrite

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1 comment

Nick Kush March 17, 2023 - 4:34 pm

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