Filmmaker Alexander Monelli’s “At the Drive-In” documentary is really a love letter to the movies

By on July 24, 2019

First-time feature documentary filmmaker Alexander Monelli’s At the Drive-In is really a love letter to the movies, showing us what happens when the financially-struggling Mahoning Drive-In decides to forego an expensive upgrade to digital projectors and continuing to screen movies using a vintage 1949 film projector, a decision which will determine whether or not the theater will be able survive the season.

You can watch At the Drive-In — you’ll find it in our Behind the Scenes: Docs That Define a Culture section — on Night Flight Plus.

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Much of the 80-minute film documents the struggle faced by the owners of the Mahoning Drive-In — located in Lehighton, in rural Pennsylvania, about fifty miles south of Scranton — because the owners couldn’t afford to switch from using a 35mm projector to newer digital system upgrades that were expected to cost upwards of $100,000 (an estimate based on the fact that the lot holds up to one thousand cars).

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Monelli’s film is much more than a document of the financial problems faced by drive-in movie theaters in the modern age, however, because at its core it’s also about the magic of movies and the power that the movie experience has had over movie fans.

It’s also a story about perserverance, and what determined individuals will go through to save something they love, in this case spurned on by a love of watching old movies being shown the old-fashioned way.

In operation since April 1949, they’ve been projecting films against a huge white screen, 110 ft. across, the second largest of its kind on the East Coast.

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The documentary features in-depth interviews with people like co-owner and projectionist Jeff Mattox (who bought the business in 2014, after working as the projectionist there off and on for eighteen years) and a group of devoted film fanatics, including the theater’s other co-owners, two former Temple University film students — Matt McClanahan and Virgil Cadamone — who partnered with Mattox in an attempt to save the theater.

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In the end, it all comes down to a make-it-or-break-it 2016 spring & summer film season and the owner’s decision to stick with showing 35mm films with his vintage projector (made in 1949), rather than making those necessarily expensive digital upgrades and blowing their budget entirely.

We’re shown what it takes the owner/projectionist to keep his both of his Simplex E7 projectors — which sit side-by-side in the projection room — running on the opening night of the season, which on this particular night will be showing a wonderful pairing of two cinema classics, Willy Wonka and The Wizard of Oz.

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Monelli’s film highlights the personal struggle faced by several employees — including their cook, whose six-hour commute to his job every weekend necessitates his deciding to sleep in the concession stand, and there are other employees who agree to work for free — and whether these sacrifices will be enough to keep the Mahoning Drive-In open for business in the future.

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Along the way, we also meet some of the volunteers who show up to help decorate the theater on “theme” nights, and several oddball customers who participate in their own special ways, by dressing up like “Jason Vorhees” for the drive-in’s showing of Friday the 13th or showing up at the Back to the Future double-feature in a DeLorean.

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There’s even a wedding ceremony that takes place at one point among the mostly heartwarming and generally inspiring and occasionally amusing moments that take place that summer.

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Read more about At the Drive-In below.

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Alexander Monelli

A native of Abington in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, and a current resident of Lancaster, filmmaker Alexander “Al” Monelli attended Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia and earned a B.A. degree in film studies from Long Island University in New York.

He decided to make his feature-length directorial debut with a story that hit a lot closer to home, however, a story that was very close to his heart.

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Movies have always been Monelli’s passion, which may be why he worked at a Blockbuster video store in Clarks Summit, and why he ended up assisting the head of video production at Marywood University.

His very first filmmaking experience, in fact, involved shooting experimental films with his parents home-video camera.

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Along with small independently-owned moviehouses — which were not able to amortize the cost of the new projection systems when Hollywood decided to transition to digital cinema technology in 2012, making the fateful decision to stop supplying physical film prints — drive-in theaters were also hit hard.

Most were driven out of the first run exhibition business, which is why the ones that remain open today are basically “retro” throwbacks to another (happier) era, showing films for people who can watch from the comfort of their cars, or on blankets and chairs in the warm summer air.

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The number of drive-in theaters in America had already been dwindling over the years, and many — like Mahoning Drive-In — converted over from showing new movies to themed genre weekends.

They show zombie movies one weekend, and John Hughes’ ’80s teen comedies the next, meaning their financial survival was tied to whether or not moviegoers on any particular weekend were fans of the particular genre being screened.

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The Mahoning Drive-In continues to thrive today, we’re happy to report, because it is valued by the people from the Coal Region, the Poconos and Lehigh Valley.

One club for Lehigh Valley-area horror fans, The LV Reapers, even meets there regularly.

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Watch At the Drive-In and other documentary films on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.