Having your official or unofficial debut at a drive-in tends to take the “gala” out of “gala premiere,” for worse or for better. For Dave Franco, the director and co-writer of the horror thriller “The Rental,” who admitted that having his film unspool for the first time at the Vineland Drive-In in the City of Industry “wasn’t quite how I expected the first public screening to go,” he’s willing to admit that he saw the light about debuting it in a vast outlay of dark parking lots, after some initial trepidations.
“It was definitely surreal,” said Franco, speaking with Variety Friday morning about the previous night’s preview event, which took place on all four screens of the Vineland, the last drive-in remaining in the Pacific Theaters chain, under the auspices of ArcLight Cinemas. “But in the end, it truly did feel unique and special. Where standard premieres are a bit more formal, with everyone dressed in suits and fancy dresses, I just don’t think that would’ve been the right vibe for this film. I love how casual the night was. and it didn’t feel like there was a spotlight on me or the cast. It felt more like a communal experience where everyone was just excited to get out of their homes and let loose with a group of fellow movie lovers. It was perfect. And everyone kept saying this is the first time anyone has ever premiered their film at a drive-in event…”
Well, not quite. There have been at least a couple of drive-in premieres in decades past, most famously when Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” had its bow at a long-gone Burbank drive-in where entry on horseback was the main requirement for entry.
“No way!” says Franco. “That was a great idea. Well, it’s good company to be a part of.”
There are some firsts the “Rental” premiere can still claim. It may well be the first drive-in screening to ever have a filmmaker-and-cast Q&A afterward — one of the staples of ArcLight previews that was carried over to the premium chain’s City of Industry relocation, along with the signature caramel corn. And, although it took a few minutes to get the Q&A up on screen after the end credits, it’s almost certainly the first time a Zoom call has ever been projected onto a drive-in screen.
“No one even knew what Zoom was a few months ago, so yeah, I would imagine we were the first,” says Franco, who took part in the live discussion with Alison Brie, one of the principal cast members as well as his wife, from their car, while costar Sheila Vand Zoom-ed in from her own vehicle nearby, and non-attending castmates Dan Stevens and Jeremy Allen White participated more remotely.
Measured in honking or headlights (which the audience mostly politely refrained from during the screening but ramped up during the Q&A), Franco’s directorial debut was a hit with the cabin-fever-defying crowd. And it was certainly, if nothing else, a one-night box-office sensation, with 650 cars (containing an estimated 1300 patrons) paying $55 a carload — likely to go uncontested as the best per-screen average for any night or probably even week of the quarantine season.
“The Rental” is likely to do solid business again when it has its national opening July 24 on VOD, at drive-ins and at whatever indoor theaters are open by then, with or without masks as a requirement. The thriller — representing Franco’s accomplished first time behind the camera after having been a mostly comedic presence in “Neighbors,” “The Disaster Artist” and other films — is about a pair of couples that head off to a weekend retreat at a luscious rental home on the Oregon coast, only to be bedeviled by fears that they’re being surveilled, even as rivalries and sexual tensions threaten to make the getaway far from idyllic even without a possible stalker on the loose.
To paraphrase the old saying that typically gets used for horror films, “The Rental” could do for AirBnB what “Jaws” did for the ocean. (Sorry, already beleaguered B&B owners of 2020.)
“We’re a relatively small movie compared to most, and this kind of recognition definitely helps the overall level of awareness,” Franco said about the screening, the brainchild of IFC Films, which has had a run of success at drive-ins already with films like the unlikely box-office champ “The Wretched.” “Just talking about seeing the movie on the big screen in general, it’s more fun to watch thrillers and comedies with a crowd. As a viewer, you feed off everyone’s energy, whether they’re screaming or laughing. And I personally love watching a scary movie on the big screen and hearing strangers almost try to harness their fear. In a good, scary movie, there’s inevitably moments where the entire audience can’t hold back any longer and there’s a giant collective shriek, and it’s kind of intoxicating — you feel like you went through something together.”
At a drive-in, you have to put an asterisk on the “seeing it with an audience” part, as screams and nervous laughs tend to be far-off or muffled. But, says Franco — who admits he hadn’t been to a drive-in since he was too young to remember what he saw — “it’s this unique communal experience where you can be comfortable in your own space but still feel the infectious energy of those around you. There was definitely a palpable energy in the air.”
(Franco’s film plays the drama fairly straight, with no camp elements, to the point that you could almost imagine a cut of the movie that just focuses on the domestic tension between the couples with no bloodshed involved. So missing any massive audience laughs wasn’t a huge drawback… although it would have been interesting to see how much of the audience chortled or didn’t when a caretaker tells the troubled couples: “Enjoy your final night.”)
During the Q&A, Brie predicted that she was likely to hear the whole way home about Franco’s reservations about picture and sound quality. Franco’s fears may have been overstated — digital drive-in projection is far brighter than it used to be, in the days when the need to throw light across a vast lot competed with the need to not light up prints so much that the bulb would burn up the print. “The Rental” was bright enough to be entirely comprehensible, but he still had reservations.
“Our film leans on the darker side. But we have been having conversations about making a specific version of the film for future drive-in showings, where we would I think just make everything slightly brighter. … I ended up having a really good time, which I am happy to report, because I was definitely nervous beforehand. Even though drive-in events are inherently very fun, the sound and picture quality are never going to be as good as they are in a standard theater. And I’m a crazy perfectionist. And I was just worried that people weren’t going to be able to experience the film in its best form. But last night made me realize that none of that matters when people are there to have fun.”
He also came to cherish the fact that the big screen is the big screen — and yes, even as a slightly reluctant convert to the outdoor filmgoing experience, he’d rather have you see it at the drive-in next month than at home.
“It’s definitely a little bizarre to have a screening during COVID. But the ArcLight obviously made sure that the event would be safe,” Franco said. “Even the vehicles themselves were social distancing, where there was an empty space between each car. And I know there’s a lot of talk about the future of film living primarily on digital platforms, but the fact that people are flocking to drive-ins all over the country during this time proves how special the moviegoing experience is when you’re watching something on the big screen, surrounded by strangers.”
Besides acting as a buzz-builder for “The Rental,” the screening was likely to increase awareness for the Vineland, which reopened just a week and a half ago after being dark a few months during the lockdowns. Not only is it the last drive-in in the once DI-focused Pacific chain but, for most of the 2000s and 2010s, the sole operating drive-in in L.A. County. (It’s recently been joined by the rebuilt Paramount in the city of the same name and a Torrance swap meet that has reignited its longstanding drive-in screen, the Roadium.) As Pacific/ArcLight execs acknowledged in a recent story, the Vineland has gone from something that was less than the crown jewel of the chain to being, ironically, the best and only game in town. That the “Rental” screening was branded with both the high-end and low-end parts of the chain was fitting for a film that skirts along the edges of both high-class and grindhouse.
The ArcLight is not the only Hollywood-based cineaste institution looking to do pop-ups. The same day that “The Rental” premiered, the American Cinematheque, normally based at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, announced a Thursday night retrospective series to take place at another nearby drive-in, the Mission Tiki in Montclair (on one screen out of four). Carload tickets for the first screening in that series, a double feature next week of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Death Race 2000,” sold out within hours.