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As Indie Films Look to Drive-Ins for Theatrical Runs, a Masked Cast and Crew Celebrate Under the Stars

Dozens of actors and crew members from IFC's "The Wretched" drove just outside of L.A. County for an informal premiere at one of a dozen drive-in engagements the horror film had this weekend.

ifc midnight horror drive-in theaters
Chang Tseng

As cars lined up by the dozens to get into the Mission Tiki Drive-In before dusk on  Friday night, the producer of one of the films showing at the four-screen outdoor venue was holding a clipboard, manning a guest list for cast and crew members who were driving across the L.A. County line to Montclair to celebrate the opening night of their very limited theatrical run. Like any movie that has bowed on the big screen in recent weeks, “The Wretched” is playing exclusively at what the trades used to call ozoners.

“I’ve been meaning to come out here for a long time, because a bunch of my filmmaker buds come out here,” said Chang Tseng, producer of the indie horror pic, which IFC released this weekend. “I haven’t been to a drive-in since I was 15.”

“Just like everybody else here,” laughed Frank Huttinger, vice president of De Anza, a small chain of drive-ins, as he watched a couple of the lots approach sellout levels with the sun still up, something that normally wouldn’t happen until peak summer blockbuster season.

The Mission Tiki was one of 11 drive-ins nationally at which “The Wretched” opened this weekend — a big enough run to make the film officially the top box-office grosser in the country, with more than $70,000 coming in from that small run, according to IFC. To be fair, “Trolls World Tour,” which has already been playing on even more drive-in screens for several weeks, will probably bring in more money this weekend, but Universal isn’t reporting grosses for that animated hit, which is doing the vast majority of its business on VOD. So “The Wretched” will get to claim the prize.

“IFC is telling us the major studios won’t report any grosses,” because by non-pandemic standards, those figures aren’t the stuff of bragging rights, “but for us, it’s great,” laughed Tseng. “We’ll definitely take that numerical crown. Being No. 1 theatrically — no one is ever gonna take that away from me. It’s surreal.”

“Surreal” was a word that got used a great deal as producers Tseng and Ed Polgardy, the co-directing Pierce Brothers, several principal actors and about 35 other crew members gathered under Screen 4 of the Mission Tiki for the opening night of their premiere L.A. engagement — observing the rules of social engagement by wearing masks when they left their cars, even if familiarity inevitably led them to chat with one another from more like four or five feet apart than six.

Makeup effects supervisor Erik Porn (that’s his real name) posed for photos under the screen, wielding props of a witch’s head and a cattle skull during intermission in the double feature. As some of the 150 or so cars that had been on the lot exited without sticking around for the second feature (another IFC film, the Australian arthouse Western “The True Story of the Kelly Gang”), windows were rolled down to shout parting appreciations, along with supportive honks.

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Cast and crew on opening night of IFC’s “The Wretched,” with makeup effects designer Erik Porn holding props, at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair, California, May 1, 2020 Chris Willman / Variety

“It’s good to see half of everybody’s faces again,” said Zarah Mahler (of TNT’s “Major Crimes”). “The people who worked on this movie stayed a pretty close-knit little family, which, if you work in this business, you know that’s a pretty rare thing.”

“I can’t tell who anybody is!” Iaughed Azie Tesfai (of TV’s “Supergirl” and “Jane the Virgin”), doing some guesswork to figure out who exactly was approaching her to reminisce about a shoot that happened more than a year ago.

“But I love drive-in movies, and to see all these people here to see a horror film and be excited, it’s a nice piece of light in this dark time,” said Tesfai. “I realized how much I missed going to the movies tonight. It’s a different experience seeing it on the big screen with other people… kind of with other people. I could hear some screaming from other cars, which was cool, if weird and different. When you’re in a car at night in a parking lot and you’re hearing muffled screams near your car, that’s a little bit scary within itself.”

Tesfai offered a prediction: “I think this is maybe our future of how we see cinema for at least the next couple years. So it’s kind of cool to be one of the first to try it out.”

It’s already been tried out in a big way for about 80 years, of course, even if the number of drive-ins operating in the United States is just over 300, down from a 1950s peak of about 5,000. Huttinger was telling Tseng that “The Wretched” would undoubtedly be doing great business over the weekend at De Anza’s flagship location, the six-screen Starlight in urban Georgia, which does bang-up business year-round. But for every major metropolis like Atlanta that has a drive-in within easy driving distance, there are probably two or three that don’t. It wasn’t so much waning popularity of drive-ins that decimated their numbers over the decades as the greater value of the vast tracts of land they occupy for superstores or industrial parks, versus theaters whose operating months and hours are naturally limited by winter, in some instances, or the daily scourge of sunlight, in all cases.

The 300-some drive-ins that remain (or have been recently built), representing more than 500 screens, have inevitably received some media focus as places where movie fans with Netflix fatigue can safely see a film on a big screen again during a pandemic — since there’s no sneeze guard quite like a windshield or closed car window. Still, many have been forced to close, or been held up in opening for the season. Los Angeles County specifically included drive-ins in its theater closure order, which meant the two within county limits, the Vineland in the City of Industry and the Paramount near Long Beach, had to shut down in late March. The Mission Tiki’s two sister drive-ins in southern California, the Van Buren in Riverside and South Bay in San Diego, operated into April before being ordered closed by their respective counties.

Yet the trend is toward drive-ins that previously had to shut their doors — or gates, rather — being officially allowed to reopen, ahead of hardtops. As of this weekend, the Sacramento 6, which was permitted to reopen in early April, was believed to be the only other drive-in open in the state… which is to say, possibly the only other movie theater, period. But the Solano 4 in Concord and Capitol 6 in San Jose are following suit and will shortly be showing “The Wretched” and other films, too. In New York, governor Andrew Cuomo mused out loud at a press briefing about letting the state’s outdoor theaters reopen, although he hasn’t acted on it yet. Nationally, as other drive-ins get the go-ahead to light up their screens ahead of their indoor counterparts, there are reports of highways being clogged with customers waiting to get to these open venues, as movie fans welcome the idea of escaping lockdown while staying hermetically sealed off from fellow viewers.

For drive-ins that have remained open the whole time, like the Mission Tiki, though, the question has been how many weeks in a row “The Hunt,” “Bloodshot,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Onward” can play in apocalyptic perpetuity. (Answer: 12 weeks and counting, in the case of “Invisible Man.”) The “Trolls” release threw some fresh first-run meat out to the 20-some drive-ins that were able to run it.

But IFC has stepped into the gap, putting a handful of films  — including “Swallow,” “Resistance,” “The Other Lamb” and the aforementioned “Kelly Gang” — into drive-ins. If some of them skewed a little arthouse by usual drive-in standards, that was okay. “The Wretched,” meanwhile (a film that’s a little closer to “Goonies” or “Lost Boys” in its teen-focused plotting than it is grindhouse horror) is squarely in the pocket.

Says Brett Pierce, who co-directed “The Wretched” with his brother Drew, “When IFC brought this up, it took us by surprise, because this was at the beginning of all this COVID stuff, and we were just kind of like, can we do that? Then we got really excited about it, because honestly, it’s that type of movie.” Pointing to the brothers’ father in the car, Drew Pierce said, “Our dad was the effects guy on the original ‘The Evil Dead’ with Bruce Campbell and they had to play in drive-ins, because it wasn’t rated. So when we heard about this, we thought it was kind of cool, like a family tradition.”

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Azie Tesfai as “Sara” in Brett and Drew Pierce’s “The Wretched,” an IFC Midnight release showing at drive-ins as well as on VOD. IFC Midnight

“Obviously, what’s happening now is not ideal for anybody,” says Tseng. “But just being honest with you, if it wasn’t for the dearth of other movies coming out, we wouldn’t be getting so many reviews from major publications.” When “The Wretched” premiered last year at Fantasia Fest, he pointed out, Variety was the only publication to review it then — favorably, to his relief — but now it’s getting reviewed in the New York Times and other major papers. That might not have happened if everyone else stuck to their release slate.

“‘Black Widow’ was supposed to open today,” pointed out Brett Pierce.

“I know. I’d have it on all four screens,” laughed De Anza’s Huttinger.

At the Mission Tiki Friday, “Bloodshot” was starting to show the slightest signs of wear as a pandemic-long draw, but the screens showing “Trolls” and “Knives Out” (a second-run film being brought back as a headliner) were about to sell out, under the somewhat reduced capacity the Mission Tiki had agreed to in staying open. That was good news for siphoning some cars over to the lot held by “The Wretched,” which was mostly full by showtime.

IFC can’t single-handedly provide fresh material for the nation’s drive-ins, though, and Vin Diesel may reach his popular limit in being held over a record number of weeks. To that end, the Mission Tiki recently tried out an Indiana Jones double-feature for a week, and Huttinger is looking to experiment again in the coming months with “Batman,” “Fast and the Furious,” “Jumanji” and “Ghostbusters” double-bills on Screen 4.

There may not be much horror to go around, meanwhile — at least on the big screen — so the “Wretched” filmmakers were glad to fill that gap for a week or two for drive-in-goers.

Said Jameson Jones, who plays the teenage hero’s dad in “The Wretched,” “Watching it at a drive-in, you don’t have the audience packed around you to feel the energy of the scares and the moments where the tension builds. Yet to have this environment of everybody in their cars and hearing the ambient noise of people responding in the distance was kind of cool, too.”

Said Tesfai, “Somebody was saying to me horror movies are doing really well right now. It’s such a form of escapism from everything that’s happening. To then also be able to come out to the drive-in feels like two forms of getting a break from quarantine, in a safe way.”

(Among the other drive-ins showing “The Wretched”: the Glendale 9 in Glendale, Arizona; the Ocala in Ocala, Florida; the Tascosa in Amarillo and Galaxy in Ennis, both in Texas; the Stardust in Watertown and Sparta in Sparta, both in Tennessee; the Starlight in Atlanta and Jesup in Jesup, both in Georgia; the King in Russellville, Alabama; the Raleigh Road in Henderson, NC; the Highway 21 in Beaufort, SC; and the aforementioned Sacramento 6 in Sacramento, Solano 4 in Concord, and Capitol 6 in San Jose, California.)