How to Run a 35MM Drive-in On The East Coast: A Q&A With The Mahoning Drive-in (Lehighton, PA)
It’s rare that you find a cool drive-in operating in this great nation of ours these days. And it’s even more rare that you find one that shows 35mm prints. But to find a cool drive-in that shows 35mm prints of crazy cult classics that you’d be lucky to see screened anywhere, in any format? That’s one of a kind.
Enter The Mahoning Drive-in, located in beautiful Lehighton, PA, about 90 miles outside of Philadelphia. We caught up with The Mahoning’s General Manager, Mark Nelson, to find out what it’s like to run a repertory drive-in that screens in 35. Read on to get a look at the inner workings of an operation that continues to fight the good fight for cinema, and to learn what it takes to make that happen.
Interview by Eddie Gurrola, Cinematic Void Marketing Manager
Photos Courtesy of Mark Nelson and The Mahoning Drive-in
Mark joining us, from the future
Cinematic Void: Tell us a bit about the history of the drive-in and how it's evolved over time into what it is now...
Mark Nelson: The Mahoning Drive-In Theater was built in 1948 and opened in April of 1949, screening initially single, then double features from spring to fall every season. A few owners ran the theater over the years, though high times and low, as audiences flocked to films of all genres. Eventually attendance waned as more home viewing options proliferated in the 90s and 00s. Jeff Mattox came in as Manager and Head Projectionist in 2001, and took over as the business owner in 2014. At that point, attendance was getting lower and lower and the digital conversion was sweeping the industry. If by divine cine-intervention, two youthful former film students, Virgil Cardamone and Matt McClanahan, came into the picture. Partnering with Jeff, they proposed going all-retro and sticking with 35mm exclusively, to avoid competing with every other theater in the region showing the same new releases, and to get around having to buy digital equipment the theater couldn’t afford. It wasn’t an immediate success, but a passionate audience quickly found the theater, and [it's] grown year-by-year into a now-thriving endeavor, a weekly celebration of cinema history, 35mm film, the classic Drive-In Experience, and cinematic culture, both high and low.
A 35mm print of POSSESSION
We initially heard of The Mahoning through your partnership with Exhumed Films. What's the partnership like on these cult film events?
Simply put, The Mahoning Drive-In would likely not have survived without Exhumed Films. For anyone not in the know, Exhumed Films is a Philadelphia-based group who’s been putting on retro horror shows for almost 25 years, combining a jaw-dropping film archive with a deep love for old-time showmanship and cult horror and genre cinema. In that first all-retro season, we often leaned on the prints and programming expertise of Harry Guerro and Exhumed Films to fill out our weekend double features. We were still building an audience and awareness of what we were doing at the time, but some of those early shows definitely caught the attention of regional and willing-to-long-haul-it film fans, myself included. Soon after some of our most well-known annual events were born, like Camp Blood, Zombiefest, Weekend Of Terror and more, all conceived by the geniuses at Exhumed. For the last few seasons, Exhumed has had one or two weekends per month reserved for their shows, plus their ongoing “Tunnel Vision Tuesday” single feature series, which we are hosts for. Harry and the gang do the programming and ballyhoo, and we help with logistics, any studio prints that need to be booked, and then enjoy the show with the rest of the patrons. We’re usually just as excited as the ticket buyers are when shows/titles are announced!
We also still call upon Exhumed’s expertise in tracking down hard-to-find prints, or for suggestions in booking our own events. It’s been a phenomenal, essential partnership for us, and the Exhumed Films shows are, for me, the most fun events we do, as you can always expect some rarely-screened titles in any Exhumed event.
An example of a 35mm event put on by The Mahoning and Exhumed Films
We've gotta ask as West Coast guys, what's the process like getting these 35mm prints out to PA? We've seen the lineups of the films you show, and you've gotten your hands on some pretty epic stuff...
We source the prints we screen from a mix of studio vaults, Exhumed Films, and private collectors. Sometimes a studio will have rights but no prints, and that’s when we start casting the net out to see who may have a screenable print. Sometimes you’d be surprised the titles the studios don’t have, be they classics or, in the scheme of things, [films that are] not that old. Occasionally we have to go digital. We have a small digital booth near the screen that allows us to run most formats in surprisingly good quality, but not DCP, when a title is unobtainable, but we try to only book films we know we can get on 35mm.
The bigger issue we’ve run into this season is shipping times. Often a studio will send a print out with enough lead time to absorb any delays, but we’ve found ourselves having to run digital on the night a few times this season due to prints not arriving on time, or miscommunications in booking and confirming along the way. Still, of the 80+ events we’ve had in 2021, only a handful of events have had to be “last minute digital.”
The rarest titles we’ve run have been a mix of goodies programmed and owned, or borrowed, from Exhumed Films, and studio titles that nobody else has thought of running in a while. Getting access to the Disney vault has been very eye-opening in terms of what they have, as the library covers Disney and its myriad subsidiaries over the years. So things like WATCHER IN THE WOODS came from that source, but seem crazy-rare in that few other theaters have access to Disney or take the chance on running a lesser-known title like this.
Michael Berryman enjoying some cake at a recent event
It looked like there might have been a world where we weren't going to have The Mahoning Drive-in for a while. Can you tell us what happened, and how The Mahoning was saved?
The Mahoning Drive-In Theater, the business, is owned by Jeff Mattox. The land the Mahoning resides on, and everything on it, is owned by its longtime landowner. Jeff has leased the land on a monthly basis for years, with the understanding that when the owner was ready to sell, we’d get first crack at it. Due to a misunderstanding, the landowner thought we weren’t doing well, and optioned the land to a solar panel company who, also believing we were essentially running on ... vinegar scented ... fumes, was about to approach the local township with a request for a variance to allow a solar farm on our land. This was obviously soul-crushing when we heard about it, and partner/film curator Virgil Cardamone went live on Facebook to let our customers know the situation, while I set up a “Save The Mahoning Drive-In” Facebook page to help spread accurate information and give those who wanted to help the tools to help fight the fight. There was a huge response to this in the online community, and it was a wild 24 hours or so, this occurring on the eve of our biggest event ever, hosting Joe Bob Briggs and Darcy The Mail Girl, plus celeb guests, at the first-ever “Joe-Bob’s Drive-In Jamboree,” a pretty herculean effort in and of itself. The response was so overwhelming that the township and solar company got flooded with messages and calls. The solar company called us the next day and let us know they’d had no idea what we meant to the film community, and told us they were backing out of the project. So, due completely to the power of our customers and supporters, the Mahoning was saved overnight. We spent a good amount of that first Joe Bob day doing local press interviews, and the “Save The Mahoning” rally we’d planned for the day before the deciding township meeting became a free “We Saved The Mahoning” celebration that quickly sold out. We’re on great terms with the landowner, and a plan is in place to buy the land and secure the property long into the sunset.
Some fun before an event...
With Covid taking us all back to the drive-in last year, I personally had the opportunity to experience repertory cinema at drive-ins. But I was also treated to some genre films like ARKANSAS and FATMAN, which would have typically been released in a day-and-date VOD situation in pre-Covid times, but were able to play on the drive-in screens almost like B-movies back in the day would. Although The Mahoning is repertory-only, where do you see other drive-ins going with showing new material moving forward?
We are indeed all retro, with the very rare instance of a new indie or genre release playing, usually as a one-night-only situation or connected to a themed retro weekend, and [we're] in the minority. Covid really did shake Drive-Ins up last year, making them in many cases the only game in town for out-of-the-house activity. As there was a shortage of first-run material in that time, many DIs went with either retro titles, second, third, or fourth run films, or as you say, films that would likely never had hit a big screen, in order to stay open and entertain people. It was great seeing so much variety on outdoor screens across the U.S. Most weekends, it’s the same four or so titles coast to coast, dictated by studios and the marketplace. And it was fun seeing what owners and bookers were putting together. For us, it was business as usual, and to quote INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, "business was a-boomin’." We’re still seeing a tiny amount of that “adventurous by necessity” programming at Drive-Ins, but as the studios get back up to full power with their release slates, I think you’ll see the same A-list titles at about 95% of Drive-Ins, as heavily marketed and star vehicles are what will pull in the most business. But some theaters, more likely ones with multiple screens, will stay adventurous and quirky and take a chance if their audiences support B titles.
More fun before another event...
Halloween is just around the corner. Out here in Southern California, we don’t get much of a season change. Can you explain what an October screening is like outdoors on the East Coast?
October is always bittersweet for East Coast Drive-In operators and fans, as it means it gets darker earlier, so films can start at a reasonable hour. Triple features that start at 9pm in the middle of summer put the “grind” in grindhouse. Also, it’s not unbearably hot and humid with bugs to contend with, and everyone is in “Spooky Season” mode for horror screenings, though our audience is in that mode all season, April-October. The downside is that it gets cold at night, and those who like to sit outside sometimes feel and look like they’re Kurt Russell and Keith David at the end of THE THING. As we run horror all season, our programming doesn’t change all that much in October, nor do the incidents of customers showing up in costume. We do always have a “Halloween Party” on our final night of the season, which winds up being Halloween weekend, including costume contests and “Trunk Or Treat,” where customers decorate their cars and hand out candy to costumed kiddies in attendance. Last season, we partnered with the long-running NJ Monstermania convention to hold an event on Halloween weekend, as they’d been unable to have their normal indoor convention due to the pandemic. They brought Tom Savini and Sandy Johnson (Judith Myers from HALLOWEEN ’78) out to meet fans and sign autographs, masked and distanced, and folks who hadn’t seen each other since the previous year’s convention had a safe outdoor place to gather and watch classics like HALLOWEEN and CREEPSHOW on the big screen. This year we have three nights of fun, with “Ricci’s Pieces”, a Christina Ricci family-friendly double feature on Friday the 29th, “Janet & Jamie”, a mother-daughter horror double of PSYCHO (1960) and HALLOWEEN II (1981) on Saturday the 30th, and an Exhumed Films event featuring Dee Wallace in person, with her two big horror titles, CUJO and THE HOWLING on 35mm, a fright-filled frolicky way to finish the 2021 season. [Editor's Note - you can grab tickets for these events right here.]
Seems like a great job you have here Mark, being able to keep the cinematic experience alive in this way...
It’s easily the coolest and most fulfilling place I’ve ever been associated with. So much love from the patrons for the place and what we do, a great team who all bring their passions and talents to every show, and overall just an exciting, often hilarious celebration of our mutual love of cinema and the Drive-In experience. From our Assistant Projectionist, Robert Humanick, who keeps the reels spinning, in frame and in focus, to J.T. Mills, who builds and organizes amazing photo ops and costumes that put our customers in scenes from their favorite films, to Beth Muller and her snack bar crew who keep the burgers flipping and food specials watering mouths all season, to Sandy at the Mighty Mahoning Merch Tent selling and working with designers on cool Mahoning-branded items, to the lot crew who keep the gate running smoothly, the lot looking spiffy, and construction/photo ops looking amazing, to Virgil Cardamone, who books the films, helps Jeff guide the ship, and is the smiling face of the organization. We all add to the magic of The Mahoning.
Thanks to Mark for working with us on this feature! If you want to learn more about the inner workings of The Mahoning, check out Mark's podcast.