Back From the Grave: The Drive-in Gets a New Beginning
If you thought the drive-in was a thing of the past, well, it is. But, that doesn't stop the drive-in from digging itself out of its shallow grave every so often, much like B-movie sequels that just refuse to let a franchise rest in peace. At the Steve Allen Theater in Los Feliz, projectionist Eric Kurland transforms the theater's parking lot into a glorious drive-in experience. Who needs your small home entertainment system or sharing a dark theater with strangers when you could be watching a movie in the coolest place you know: your wheels. Taking some time out of his busy schedule, Eric was kind enough to answer some questions on how it was all brought back to life, how it's setup, and where it's going.
Marvin Miranda: How did the idea to have a "drive-in" in the back of the Steve Allen come about? Was there a specific goal in mind, I mean, other than the cool factor of projecting movies on to a wall and having them viewed from parked cars?
Eric Kurland: Back in 2005, I had been projecting movies in my backyard for gatherings of friends, and it occurred to me that I could rig the projection equipment to work from my car and go show movies anywhere. I really miss the old drive-in theaters, and I was inspired to try to bring back the whole experience of going to the movies outdoors, and enjoying the show from the comfort and privacy of your car. At the same time that I was beginning this in L.A., I came across the website that Bryan Kennedy had started, MobMov.org, for his mobile drive-in up in Berkeley. Bryan was interested in expanding the Mobile Movie idea into other cities, and I became the first distant chapter, Hollywood MobMov. I've done drive-in screenings at various locations around L.A., and I'm always searching for great parking lots to do future screenings. Three years ago, I approached Amit Itelman, the Artistic Director of the Steve Allen Theater, about using his theater's lot, and he liked the idea. We did a drive-in screening of Re-Animator with director Stuart Gordon in the theater for a Q&A, and it was a successful show. A year later we did another drive-in night, and people really responded positively. That led to the weekly drive-in series of horror films that we screened last September and October, and then this year Amit asked me to come back for a "Masters of Horror" spring drive-in serires.
MM: Can you explain what goes into setting up the projector, the "screen," etc. How about sound?
EK: Basically, my car, an '05 Scion xB, is the projection booth. The movies play off of a video hard drive, and I have a DLP video projector that sits on the roof of the car. I project onto the white wall adjacent to the parking lot - the building becomes my "screen". My various sound sources - Hard drive, mp3 player and microphone - go through an audio mixer in the car, and output to a low powered FM transmitter that transmits on an unused frequency with a range of about a city block. The audience sits in their cars, tunes their radios to the selected channel, and it's just like a real drive-in.
MM: You also do a "Traveling Drive-in"? Is that something you do at other places besides The Steve Allen Theater?
EK: I've done a number of screenings all around Los Angeles. Sometimes I show indie films and documentaries that are still seeking distribution - I'll see a movie at a festival, and approach the filmmaker about setting up a screening, and I've also been approached by indie distributors to do drive-in "sneak previews" of upcoming releases. I also have a large collection of old b-movies that have fallen into the public domain, that I'll sometimes show for a vintage drive-in night.
MM: How do you obtain permission to show the movies?
EK: When I'm screening indie movies, I usually get permission directly from the filmmakers or distributor, and they participate in the show. For the series at the Steve Allen, we are licensing the movies through the non-theatrical distribution companies who handle the rights for the films. The Steve Allen pays the licensing fees, and then charges a small admission at the gate to cover the expense. I haven't actually had to deal with the studios directly.
MM: Like some of the old drive-ins I remember, anyone can view the film projected on the wall without having to pay to come in to the lot, correct? Is that an issue for you guys? Are the neighbors saying much, especially when you've got The Texas Chainsaw Massacre projecting right outside their window?
EK: Our audiences have been great. We haven't really had to deal with people trying to watch from outside the lot. The neighbors have been cooperative - I haven't heard of any complaints. In fact, the drive-in is usually pretty quiet, as people watch from inside their cars.
MM: What's an average crowd like at the Friday drive in? Does it feel like the old drive-in experiences?
EK: We usually get between 50 -100 people attending, with more on the sold-out nights when we show very popular movies. Once the lot is full, overflow crowds can go inside the theater and still see the movie. People get pretty excited when they show up and realize that they can watch from their car - a lot of people don't think we really mean "drive-in". We even have some regulars who come every week. I always put a whole program together with trailers, vintage drive-in clips, intermission clocks, everything to evoke the old school drive-in experience. I love it when people come up to me after the show and tell me that this took them back to their favorite old drive-in theater, or that they never got to go to a real drive-in, and now feel like they have had the experience.
MM: Just when you think the drive-in has become a distant memory of halcyon years past, it pops up somewhere, somehow. I know there are other traveling film shows, outdoor cinemas, and even some guerilla projection going on in the city, for example. Why do you think there's still a love to project things out in the open and not just have the two options be to sit comfortably in your house or in a dark room in a theatre?
EK: I think there is something special about the drive-in. It's all at once both a shared audience experience, and a private screening, and it's outdoors. Most of the old drive-in theaters closed, as the owners found that there was more money to be made by selling the land to developers, rather than showing movies, and I think we lost a part of our cultural heritage when that happened. There is a certain nostalgia for the old drive-in, and I think that's evidenced in the many guerilla drive-ins and community outdoor screenings that are popping up across the country.
MM: So, you're doing a "Masters of Horror" drive-in series. You've got one of my favorite movies coming up, a "giallo," actually: Suspiria. How did you come up with that title as part of your series? Not a typical title.
EK: For the Masters of Horror drive-in, Amit Itelman did the film programming. Suspiria is actually Amit's favorite movie, so he made sure to program into the series. In fact we also showed it last fall, so I guess he really loves it.
MM: How easy/difficult was it tracking down actress Jessica Harper (who will be attending Suspiria's screening, tomorrow night, 6/12)? You've also had other guests, including Tobe Hooper. Who else have you had and is there a particular reaction you get from them when telling them their movie is going to screen at at "drive-in"?
EK: When Amit was putting the program together, he approached director Mick Garris, who created the "Masters of Horror" TV series for Showtime. The idea for this drive-in series was to show an episode of the TV show, followed by a Q&A with the director, and finally a feature film from that director. Among the notable directors who have been featured were Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, Peter Medak, Tom Holland, Don Coscarelli, Tobe Hooper, and Stuart Gordon. Mick was instrumental in getting the other directors to come out and support the screenings. The reaction across the board from all of the filmmakers has been incredibly positive. They have all actually loved the idea of a drive-in showing of their work, and most have taken the time to tell me that they thought the projection looked great. I'm not sure how Amit tracked down Jessica Harper, but we're thrilled that she is scheduled to attend.
MM: Are you planning anything else besides this horror series, especially since the series ends tomorrow (Friday, 6/12)? Any other genre besides horror?
EK: I'm already in talks with Amit and the Steve Allen Theater to do another drive-in screening series. These shows have proven to be very popular, and we are all interested in making the drive-in a regular event at the theater. I'd love to do show film genres, and we're just in the early planning stages now. The interesting thing is that certain types of film seem more suited for a drive-in screening. Maybe it's because of the perceived cheesiness of the drive-in, but genre films - horror, sci-fi, fantasy, action/adventure - seem best suited for the experience.
MM: Can you tell our viewers what you know about the Steve Allen Theatre? What is it? How did you partner up with them?
EK: The Steve Allen Theater is a great small venue in Hollywood for live entertainment. Their schedule is usually full of irreverent comedy, thought-provoking theater, and many other unusual shows that you won't see anywhere else. I was a patron of the theater long before I started doing the drive-in there. I met Amit while attending shows at the theater, and suggested the drive-in when I saw that the parking lot was ideal for it since it has a large white wall, and spaces for 50 or so cars. The drive-in at the Steve Allen really is a partnership, as Amit programs the movies and schedules the guests, and I produce the show content, and handle all of the actual presentation.
MM: What do you hope your traveling drive-in leads to? What do you hope is its future?
EK: I do this primarily because I love movies, and I love bringing back the drive-in experience. It's one of my passions, I don't really think of it as a business. That said, I would like to eventually be able to offer sponsorships for the screenings, so that local businesses can promote themselves, and I can defray my operating costs and continue to do this.
And I am always looking for parking lots around L.A. that want to become drive-in theaters for a night!