When Hollywood distributors announced that they’d be converting entirely from film to digital movies, they essentially issued an ultimatum to America’s remaining drive-in movie theaters—convert your projection booths for the hefty fee of 50,000 dollars or die. For many locally owned theaters, this demand came as a final blow to an already struggling business model; they played their last shows and sold their lots to real-estate developers. Those that did make the switch did so by crowdfunding, forming community non-profit groups, grants, and dogged determination. The Mahoning Drive-in Theater, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, decided to stay alive and stay on film.
At the Drive-in captures the story of the Mahoning theater as its operators fight to keep the theater open, running only 33mm film prints of older movies on their original, 1940s projector.
The documentary’s director, Alexander Monelli, shows the Mahoning’s owners sleeping on air mattresses in the concession stand and making repairs to the seventy-year-old theater all without ever seeing a paycheck. Their enthusiasm is equaled by fans who arrive in costume for themed events like, “Vampyrty” (Fright Night, Fright Night 2, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and “Bite Night” (Jurassic Park, Jaws). One fan singled out in the documentary drives more than five hours every weekend to camp out in the grassy field beyond the screen
As Monelli gives viewers time to get to know the Mahoning’s characters, it becomes clear that while the bold choice to stay on film brought together a collection of movie nerds, drive-in fans, and sub-culture aficionados, the glue that holds them and their beloved theater together is not just a “buck the system” attitude, but a sense of community.
In a press release, Monelli commented on the spirit of the Mahoning:
Technology moves so fast today, faster than ever before. As technology distracts us from one another and segments us further into smaller audiences, it was just magical to see a bunch of people gather together in rural Pennsylvania to watch film flicker through a projector from 1948.
Drive-ins like the Mahoning come from a time before the bright blue light of isolated and individual screens. At the Drive-in shows the magic of sharing twenty-four frames per second with other people. If you’re interested in drive-ins or the story of an unlikely community, watch At the Drive-in.
At the Drive-In is available to rent or buy on both iTunes and Amazon Prime Video. The DVD includes deleted scenes, three separate feature-length commentary tracks, and a 30-minute Q&A filmed at an Alamo Drafthouse screening.
Stars and Screens will be headed to the Mahoning in July. To learn more and view their schedule, see their website here.