“Now that movie theaters are closed and drive-ins seem to be super popular right now, I look like Nostradamus,” jokes writer-director Alexander Monelli, whose documentary At the Drive-In follows the story of a small-town drive-in theater and the movie lovers who saved it. “When I started making it, no one cared about drive-ins — except for a small, select few.”
Monelli started out making a documentary about drive-in theaters in general, but soon came to focus on the Mahoning Drive-In theater in Leighton, Pennsylvania. Like many older theaters, the Mahoning was slowly dying because it couldn’t afford an expensive projector to screen digital films.
And then something wonderful happened.
A pair of young film lovers approached the Mahoning’s owner, Jeff Mattix, with plans to revive the theater by showing classic (and cult classic) films that lured movie fanatics from far beyond Pennsylvania. Screening everything from The Wizard of Oz to Friday the 13th movies, they drew a passionate community of volunteers and fans. Slowly the Mahoning parking lot got more and more full.
But now that the movie is out — and streaming on Amazon Prime — there’s a major twist, the kind you couldn’t see coming from way back behind the snack bar. With COVID-19 shuttering indoor theaters, drive-in owners like Mattix are suddenly getting more offers than they have in decades. Concerts, sporting events, film festivals and even political rallies may be coming soon to a drive-in near you.
We talk about all this and more on the latest MovieMaker Interviews podcast, which features Monelli and one of the heroes of At the Drive-In, Mark Nelson, who still drives more than six hours to the theater, every summer weekend, from New Hampshire. And one of the best parts of At the Drive-In is a short, artful sequence that shows what it takes for Nelson to make his cinematic pilgrimage, weekend after weekend. It’s a testament to the love he has for the Mahoning — and that so many people have for drive-ins.
This one’s a must-listen for anyone who’s seen At the Drive-In and wants to know what happened to the color movie lovers at the heart of it. It might also be helpful for anyone trying to keep an old theater alive.
And if you have an old theater that needs a digital projector, can we highly, highly recommend that you go watch At the Drive-In right now? There’s a bit of technical innovation in the film that might save you $50,000.
At The Drive-In is now screening on Amazon Prime.