Thursday, April 25, 2019

Reserved Seating: AT THE DRIVE-IN

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who keep 35mm alive. Not literally, but the intent is there.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week is a real “all roads lead to this” type of review. A year or two ago, Rob told Patrick and I about a theater he knew about called The Mahoning Drive-In. It’s located in Lehighton, PA, and every time Rob mentioned the programming there I was jealous because it sounded incredible. It’s like someone was extracting perfect, nostalgic repertory double features from my mind to show at a drive-in. I started to follow The Mahoning via their social media out of curiosity to see what was playing. In doing so, I noticed recently that a documentary was made in 2017 (it’s newly released to DVD and streaming) chronicling a season at this particular drive-in. This is totally my bag, having loved other documentaries about repertory movie theaters like The Rep and Out of Print. Ironically, I was saying to Patrick very recently how I was in need of a new one to quench my movie theater documentary thirst. I think the movie gods heard and led me to At the Drive-In. Before we get into the documentary itself, Rob, speak a little bit about your history with this theater.

Rob: I have family near Lehighton, and for years I’ve been passing by the drive-in’s marquee wondering who the hell was setting up such awesome double features. It’s along a major road in that area, but it’s such a rural stretch that I had to ask who was coming all that way for such a niche experience. Godzilla-palooza? A Romero Dead fest? Bite Night (Jaws and Jurassic Park)? Then again, who wouldn’t come out for these? I didn’t actually attend a screening until this past summer, though, and while I had a great time, it was a packed house and I didn’t get to venture out to the concession stands or see too much of the area. Since then, I’ve mostly just sent you and Patrick the lineups so we can fan out about them. I still get really excited to see what they’re screening every time I drive by, though, and it’s probably only due to the late start times (around dusk, which can be as late as 9 PM in the summer) that I haven’t attended more.
With all that said, I found At the Drive-In to be a totally delightful watch that really amped me up to take in more screenings this season. It’s quick (a slim 80 minutes) and light on narrative, but it’s such a warm and welcoming look at a group of misfits celebrating their love for a bygone era that it’s hard to criticize it for structural concerns. The documentary begins as owner Jeff Maddox explains his decision not to convert his first-run drive-in to digital projection in 2014 (saving a cool $60,000, but leaving him without a functional business model) and instead rebrand with repertory titles projected on 35mm. We’re then introduced to Virgil Cardamone and Matt McClanahan, two Philadelphia-area film students who discovered the Mahoning in passing and have spent the last few years volunteering in order to keep the operation alive and evolving. From there, more weird and wonderful characters emerge as we follow the Mahoning’s 2016 season.

Adam, what stood out to you about At the Drive-In, and what makes a good movie theater documentary, in general?
Adam: A good movie theater documentary focuses on two things: a) the personalities at the theater and b) the day-to-day of running a cinema, especially programming and operations. All the movie theater docs I’ve seen overlay the story of one specific theater with a larger scope about film in general, such as film vs. digital and/or the value of the repertory movie theater experience in the modern era (era). It’s always very nostalgic and romantic in perspective, while also sober to the reality that rep cinema is a dying business model. What stood out to me most about At the Drive-In were the people. I could watch them forever. Also, by nature of the film being about an outdoor movie theater, the whole thing has a summer camp for adults vibe. It feels looser and more Wet Hot American Summer-ish than The Rep or Out of Print. The doc is set for a finite amount of time (i.e. summer versus being open the entire year) which makes everything feel poignant and the theater is mostly successful, which lends to a refreshingly fun tone. By contrast, the theater in The Rep was always struggling and the stress of the employees spilled over into the movie in a palpable way. I love that most of the employees at The Mahoning are working there as a labor of love. It’s like the record store in High Fidelity. They just started showing up every day. And guess what? I don’t blame them. It looks like a great place to hang out.
A few questions for you:
1) What was your favorite moment in the documentary?
2) Did you have a favorite person in the film?
3) Should I get every person who works there to sign my DVD when I visit with you next month? Or should I play it cool and pretend I’ve never seen the documentary?
4) Is it time for us to make an F This Movie! documentary? I think it is. I’m pretty sure Erich would do the score. The only stopping us is us and probably Patrick.

Rob: I think my favorite moment was when Jeff talks about the night only a few cars showed up for a screening and he decided to go ahead with it, anyway. He says something along the lines of, “We don’t know how far these people came. We advertised a show and we’re not going to go with it because not enough people are here? That’s nonsense. You run it!” We then learn that the $30 in revenue won’t even come close to covering the electricity costs to run the movies that night. But who cares? Jeff doesn’t. Could you imagine being one of those few people? You’d be a repeat customer, for sure.

Adam: My favorite part of that moment is he’s talking about a double feature of Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. When they showed the marquee I literally gasped in my living room.

Rob: My favorite character is probably Chef Corey, a friend of Matt’s who volunteers behind the concession stand each weekend. He seems like a good time guy. Wild card type. He’s got that laid-back energy you need in an operation like this. I especially liked him in all the bits showing the guys sleeping in the back room all weekend (because driving home each night is cost and time prohibitive). It gives the whole thing even more of that summer camp vibe that you mentioned.

Forget the DVD. I’m going to find you a poster to bring along. And what would the FTM doc be about? Would it follow us for a year and culminate in F This Movie Fest? Seems like a natural choice. The big second act build-up could be Patrick picking the lineup.

Adam: Maybe the FTM doc could culminate in our 1,000th episode?? This ensures that Patrick keeps the site running for another nine years. I should probably text him about this.

Kidding aside, I’m super jealous you have this drive-in nearby. Despite my movie fandom, the drive-in sadly hasn’t been a staple of my moviegoing. I’ve only been to a drive-in once and that was for a double feature of Clear and Present Danger and The Mask. I enjoyed the experience, but I remember being stressed out because I didn’t know drive-in protocol. I’m really looking forward to going to The Mahoning next month for Last Action Hero and Demolition Man. Movies like At the Drive-In are good for my movie soul. It makes me want to actively give back somehow to the moviegoing experience in some way, shape or form. I suppose we’re doing that here at F This Movie! but I dunno...I kind of want to do more, too.
Rob: Agreed. It’s a labor of love that begets more love. Speaking of which, I really appreciated that the filmmakers let each of their subjects express themselves and be as effusive as they wanted without commentary or forcing any kind of false drama. I think any community of fetishists and appreciators — like all of us at FTM — would find themselves relating to the personalities in At the Drive-In.

Adam: We’d be remiss not to mention the filmmaker by name: Alexander Monelli. There’s a title card in the film that says The Mahoning is one of 330 remaining drive-ins left in the United States. Based on the strength of this documentary, I want Alexander Monelli to make a doc on each of them. I enjoyed At the Drive-In so much I went to his website ( and found a really neat 10-minute documentary there called “Video Store Millionaire” that’s worth checking out. It’s about a family-run video store that outlasted Blockbuster Video as they prepare for their final days of operation. It’s an inspiring and bittersweet David vs. Goliath story.

Rob: I’ll check it out! Anything else you want to say about At the Drive-In? This is a big Mark Ahn for me.

Adam: Big Mark Ahn for me too. This is my favorite new-to-me movie I’ve seen in 2019. I hope people seek it out. It’s pretty widely available on disc and streaming via the usual spots like Amazon, iTunes, Xbox etc. What are we talking about next week?

Rob: We’ll be talking about our favorite April discoveries. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. Just bought a copy of this right after reading this column. I love stuff like this and Out of Print, as these are the kinds of places I'd rather be working at as opposed to big chains like the one I currently work for (only thing that stops me is it's just not economically feasible where I live).

  2. Saw a great VHS festival at this drive-in a few years back. It’s almost three hours from me, but worth the trip. Always great programming.

  3. I literally watched this documentary at the Mahoning Drive-in. It was shown there last May in a double bill with American Movie.

    The drive-in is only a little over an hour from me. I started going a couple of summers ago and have passed many pleasant nights there since then. There is a strong feel-good atmosphere to the place. Might be there next weekend for the 90's action double feature.

    1. What weekend did you attend last summer, Adam? Certain programming staples of the Mahoning (Zombiefest, Camp Blood) draw very large crowds.

      Undoubtedly my favorite bill so far is the Lethal Ladies weekend in September 2017.

      Friday Night: Angel, Ms. 45, and Lady Terminator
      Saturday Night: Switchblade Sisters, Savage Streets, and Ebony, Ivory, And Jade (I did not care for the last film at all, though.)

      The greatest thrill came from not having seen any of the movies before. Good times, indeed.

    2. The question is for Rob. I just re-read the article and realized my mistake.