Indie Movies Get a Chance to Star at Drive-Ins – The Wall Street Journal



John Jurgensen

It’s like a science fiction tale set in the movie business: A pandemic shuts down multiplexes and wipes Hollywood’s releases off the calendar. Drive-in theaters rise from obscurity and re-embrace their B-movie heritage. Unsuspecting indie filmmakers rule the box office charts.

This unlikely premise helped horror movie “The Wretched” spend five consecutive weeks as the nation’s No. 1 movie in theaters based on reported grosses. That streak, fueled by bookings in 124 drive-ins around the country, put “The Wretched” in some rarefied company.

“We’re being compared to ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar,’ which is ridiculous. They made $2 billion in the time we made a million. There’s a little asterisk there,” says Drew Pierce, who wrote and directed “The Wretched” with his brother, Brett, on a budget that benefited from having friends and family work on the crew. The movie, about a teenager who tangles with an evil witch, has brought in about $1.6 million at theaters. Another asterisk: A handful of Hollywood releases, including “The Invisible Man” and “Trolls World Tour,” have played widely at drive-ins, too, but their distributor, Universal Pictures, hasn’t publicly reported those box office tallies.

“This would never have happened if things were normal,” Drew Pierce says. Still, Brett Pierce says that doesn’t diminish the film’s popularity: “If people didn’t like our movie, it would only have lasted a week or two.” The

Pierce Brothers,

as “The Wretched” directors are billed, say they are now working on a script for a werewolf picture.

Small, upstart movies have staked a claim on what would otherwise be Hollywood’s high season. The temporary delay of major releases created an opening for independent filmmakers, whose movies often fare better as on-demand living-room rentals. This summer, they are finding a wider audience as they play across the heartland on towering outdoor screens.

“Every filmmaker wants their film to be seen on the big screen the way they envisioned it,” says Arianna Bocco, head of acquisitions and productions at IFC Films. Directors like the Pierce Brothers, she adds, “got their dream times 10.” For IFC, which distributed features to drive-ins for the first time in its 20-year history, the strategy helped the company tap into a different market and stick to its planned release schedule.

There are roughly 300 drive-ins operating now, compared with the industry’s peak of 4,000 in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. As coronavirus lockdown restrictions reintroduced America to the charms, quirks and social distancing benefits of these venues, with their playgrounds and low-slung concession stands, it also bolstered another tradition—drive-ins’ demand for horror movies and thrillers, which play on screens neighboring those showing their other staples of family films and throwbacks like “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park.”

With few new family movies coming out, “75% of my screens have R-rated pictures on them,” says Frank Huttinger, a second-generation drive-in owner and CEO of De Anza Land & Leisure Corp., which operates six venues with a total of 21 screens. Clustered in Southern California and Atlanta, the oldest of them date to 1947. Commercially, lockdown has delivered mixed results for drive-ins, he says. While new customers have come out in droves, social-distancing rules require most venues to operate at half capacity, forcing them to turn vehicles away. One upside, Mr. Huttinger says, has been the opportunity to support rising indie filmmakers.

Last week at his company’s Mission Tiki drive-in in Montclair, Calif., the double features included “The Lodge,” first released in February, about terrors visited on a snowed-in family, followed by “Becky,” a new thriller about a teen who takes out a gang of prison fugitives that has invaded her family’s remote cottage.

“Becky” features comedy star Kevin James as a thug who sustains gory soft-tissue damage at the hands of Becky (Lulu Wilson). The movie came out June 5, and spent a week as the nation’s box office leader.

It was a surprising victory lap for “Becky,” a movie that, like so many others, had its original plan scuttled by the pandemic. Its scheduled premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April was canceled along with that New York City event. The movie would have opened in around 20 indoor movie theaters in major cities. Instead, “Becky” made its debut in 45 drive-ins, and saw some of its highest opening-weekend tallies in places such as Rochester, N.Y., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Cleveland.

“It’s been a roller coaster, but here’s a way to highlight the movie in a manner it wouldn’t normally have,” says Berry Meyerowitz, co-president of independent distributor Quiver Entertainment. (Disclosure: The author of this article is a friend of “Becky” directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion.)

Like “The Wretched,” the box-office take for “Becky” is tiny by Hollywood standards—roughly $720,000 so far. But the movie’s run at drive-ins may have helped boost awareness of it on digital and on-demand platforms, where it was released simultaneously. “Becky” has earned more money there than through ticket sales, Quiver says, without disclosing figures.

The history of outdoor theaters is tied to that of independent distributors and filmmakers, like Roger Corman, who made movies like “A Bucket of Blood” and “Swamp Women” with carloads of teens in mind. Sam Raimi’s influential 1981 horror movie “The Evil Dead,” which had trouble getting played in traditional theaters because it was unrated, is on a nationwide tour of drive-ins this month. Last weekend, the four films with the highest reported grosses were scary indie flicks including “Followed,” about an internet vlogger overnighting in a haunted hotel.

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It took effort by indie distributors to establish contact with independently owned drive-ins to pitch their movies. “I’d be making cold calls at 10 p.m. New York time to the concession stands in hopes of finding the right person to talk to, or reaching out with messages on Facebook,” says Jasper Basch, director of sales and distribution at IFC, who recently visited a drive-in for the first time.

Drive-in operators had little interest in the company’s foreign-language dramas, he says, but welcomed creepy movies on its IFC Midnight label, including “The Wretched.” “Relic,” a haunted house picture by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James, is opening a week early only in drive-ins, on July Fourth weekend, ahead of a more traditional release. Next up: Dave Franco’s directorial debut, “The Rental,” about an online vacation booking gone bad.

“The silver lining of the lockdown is that they needed films to play, and we needed a place to play them,” says Ms. Bocco. Summer could end early for the indies, however, as a backlog of big Hollywood movies loom over the reopening of multiplex chains planned for July. Says Ms. Bocco: “In some ways, it’ll be back to reality.”

Write to John Jurgensen at [email protected]

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