The advent of digital movie projection not only changed how audiences saw films, but where they saw them. Large theater chains were able to amortize the cost of the new projection systems, but smaller chains and independently owned theaters were not, driving many out of the first run exhibition business. Especially hard hit were the drive-ins. With no corporate structure to finance their digital conversion, many of the already dwindling number of drive-ins who were living on the edge of financial viability found that they would be forced to close as the studios stopped supplying physical film prints.
That was the situation the Mahoning Drive-In outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania found itself in until a chance detour brought a film lover to its gate who conceived of a plan to save the suburban landmark from disappearing into an overgrowth of weeds and trees.
Director Alexander Monelli’s At The Drive-In picks up the story of the Mahoning at the start of the summer 2016 season. The plan was to covert the drive-in’s programming from first run features to themed genre weekends. One weekend would feature zombie films while the next would feature the 80s teen comedies of writer/director John Hughes. The change came the previous year, it was not enough to keep the drive-in from escaping the red ink. This season was going to be the make or break year for the volunteers as they bring their energy and enthusiasm to bear on keeping the theater open.
Despite the premise, there is not much of a narrative thrust to the film. We check in with the drive-in crew periodically over the summer, but unless it is incidentally mentioned, the documentary doesn’t really note its passage through the season.
And that is fine. The film is more about the passionate band of volunteers who work to keep the drive-in open, from the ones who live near by to the one who drives six and a half hours one way every weekend to serve up hot dogs behind the snack counter. Some of them basically camp out at the drive-in each week, just to make sure everything is ready to go foe the next show.
Much like Best Worst Movie or Cinemania, At The Drive-In is really about the power of cinema. Its ability to create a community and to inspire a love of the medium that others want to share. It is about preserving the experience of seeing a film in a way that can not be duplicated anywhere else and the passion of those who work to keep it alive. Any easy sell to a festival audience perhaps, but that doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable.