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Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

—Langston Hughes poem ”Harlem”

”He was the beam we all followed.”
—Denzel Washington on Sidney Poitier

On this Martin Luther King Day I decided to revisit the classic movie A Raisin in the Sun. The movie came out in 1961, two years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and three years before the Civil Rights Act passed. The movie is based on the 1959 Broadway play of the same name written by Lorraine Hansberry, who also wrote the screenplay. It is playwriting and screenwriting with brass knuckles.

My book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles is dedicated to Annye Refoe who was my creative writing teacher my junior and senior year of high school. She was a recent graduated of Fisk University (a historic black school) and showed A Place in the Sun to her all white class. This was long before the Internet, and even before cable and VCRs were ubiquitous. There were no revival art houses in Orlando to discover classic films. You can say that that single showing of A Raisin in the Sun was my first film class.

The pivotal character in the film is Walter Lee Younger played by Sidney Poitier. When Poitier died last week, his role in A Raisin in the Sun was the one I thought of first. He was the first African-American actor to be nominated for a best actor Oscar (The Defiant Ones, 1958), and the first African-American actor to win a best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963).

A Raisin in the Sun was not a big award winning film (or even award-nominated film) but the real win was that it got made. And despite having a 500+ run on Broadway, from what I’ve read the film version wouldn’t have gotten made without Sidney Poitier. I don’t believe you can accurately teach film history without talking about the 1915 film Birth of a Nation (a film based on the book The Clansman), but don’t think you should pass up the role of A Raisin in the Sun in unpacking American cinema.

P.S. And as a bonus to the many other fine performances in A Raisin in the Sun, you get the screen debut of Oscar-Winning actor Louis Gossett Jr (An Officer and a Gentleman). And to show what a small world it is, I once studied acting with Gossett’s second wife Cyndi James Gossett. (If my memory is correct, it was a scene study class on Chekhov’s Three Sisters.)

Related posts:https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001283/

Lorraine Hansberry and the Seeds of ’A Raisin in the Sun’

Nudge the World a Little

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.” 
—Alfred Hitchcock

Nothing quite ushers in the holidays like the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m a big fan of The Criterion Channel and this month they are running 21 Hitchcock movies. While this includes some classics (Vertigo, Rope, Lifeboat) it also includes some of his lesser known silent film work (The Lodger, Downhill).

It’s easy to look at a masterpiece like North by Northwest (1959) and miss that Hitchcock was 60 when that film was released. Like everyone else had to learn to be a filmmaker. If you look back on his early 20s you begin to see how he evolved as a filmmaker. He loved watching movies as a kid, but being a filmmaker wasn’t on his radar. He studied engineering and through his skills as a draftsman, started doing some side work title design work and art directing on two reeler silent movies.

It was while working with the Famous Players—Lasky in London where he says he learned screenwriting from ”some middle-aged ladies.” Mix that with his appreciation of the silent films by Chaplin, Keaton, and D.W. Griffith and he was prepared to start directing himself. Perhaps the real take away for the young filmmaker/content creator today watching Hitchcock’s British-era films is to see how he engineered his shot selection. Working with film and lower budgets in his early days forced him to think though where he was going to place the camera for maximum impact.

Oscar-winning writer/ director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) was greatly influenced by Hitchcock and only started his featuring film directing career after a three year study of the films by the master of suspense. Here’s what he had to say about The Man Who Knew Too Much (which is also available on The Criterion Channel this month).

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“People will come to Iowa, for reasons they can’t even fathom.”
—Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

All eyes in the baseball world were on Iowa on Thursday night for MLB’s Field of Dreams game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. And Iowa did not disappoint.”
—Aaron Marner
Des Moines Register

There are a lot of grand movie entrances. Two that come to mind are Rose (Kate Winslet) and her giant hat in Titanic and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) twirling his rifle in Stagecoach. But on some list of 100 great film entrances has to be the entrance of the baseball players emerging from a cornfield in Iowa in Field of Dreams.

Last night in Dyersville, Iowa, Kevin Costner got to make his own grand entrance emerging from an Iowa corn field—followed by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. As a lifestyle baseball fan, I can’t say that Major League Baseball ever fully recovered from the double black eye of the strike back in the 90s, followed by the MLB steroid scandal.

But they took steps yesterday to add to baseball folklore by having the Yankees and the White Sox play a game near where they shot Field of Dreams movies back in the 1980s. (I think it was the first MLB game ever played in Iowa.) The TV announcers keep talking about a magical vibe the place had.

I’ve visited the Field of Dreams site a couple of times when I lived in Iowa. When I started the Screenwriting from Iowa … and Other Unlikely Places in Ceder Falls, Iowa 13 years ago, the mythology of Field of Dreams (screenplay by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson from a book by W.P. Kinsella) was definitely on my mind. What may get lost in the backstory of Field of Dreams is that Kinsella had an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. A pretty good foundation for Robinson, Costner and the others to build upon.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) also graduated from Iowa and it’s been fun all these years to go back to that well from time to time. People may forget that in 2008 just the idea of screenwriting (and filmmaking) from Iowa and other unlikely places was a radical (or tongue in cheek) concept. But fast forward to 2021 in a post-COVID world and you see that it’s no longer so bizarre. Your favorite movie or streaming show is more likely to come from the state of Georgia than Los Angeles.

The cost of living and quality of life in LA is causing more than a few creatives to trade LA for Austin, Texas. Which, of course, has its own established film community. Vancouver has proven to be a film hot spot. Zoom calls have allowed established writers to retreat to states throughout the US. If I wanted to call it a day for this blog and say “my work is done” this would be a good day to do it.

But … I think I have a few more posts in me. And I still have to get on the ball and get my podcast rolling. I don’t know what the future of movies will be—or how many movie theaters will survive these odd times—or if people even will return to the movie going business as we once knew it—but I’m pretty sure people will still want to be entertained as they have throughout the history of civilization.

In recent posts, I’ve been recounting some places I visited on my vacation back in June and July. It’s fitting that my next post will be about going to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY on my birthday. It was a trip I’d been planning since I was 10 years old.

For those of you who missed the game last night, here’s all the drama of the final dream ending (at least for Tim Anderson). Hollywood couldn’t have done it better.

P.S. Whoever came up with that idea to play the game in Iowa last night deserves a nice bonus.

P.P.S. Just realized after I wrote this post the Iowa-connection of two of the movies I referenced. Rose in Titanic (as a 103 woman) lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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In Stephen King’s short story The Body (on which the 1986 movie Stand By Me was based) the protagonist in the story is reminiscing a trip to New York he took after he sold his first novel. Toward the end of a grand three day tour of the city given by Keith, his editor, there is an awkward moment between the two men and King writes:

“[I wanted to tell Keith]: The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that’s why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings, Keith my good man, even the ones that sell millions of paperbacks. The only two useful art forms are religion and stories.

I was pretty drunk that night, as you may have guessed.

What I did tell him was: ‘I was thinking of something else, that’s all.’ The most important things are the hardest things to say.”

The Body is available as a stand alone book or part of the original collection of short stories called Different Seasons. In that book you’ll also find the story Rita Hayworth and the Shank Redemption, which became the movie The Shawshank Redemption. And the short story Apt Pulpil became the 1998 movie Apt Pupil.

P.S. If you’ve never seen Stand By Me put it on your list to watch this week. And for extra credit read the Stephen King short story then the script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans. And then watch with Rob Reiner director’s commentary, and then the movie one more time. (The 25th anniversary Blu-Ray of the movie has a commentary by Reiner, Corey Feldman, and Wil Wheaton and I imagine that’s solid as well.) There’s a whole film school worthy class you could build around King’s short story becoming a modern day classic movie.

Scott W. Smith wrote the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him.”
The opening words from the novel The Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe

Last night I was able to close the gap one more notch in my knowledge of global cinema by watching the 1964 Japanese film Woman in the Dunes. (I saw it on the The Criterion Channel, but you can also rent it through Amazon.) I’ve watched a lot of movies this year because of the pandemic, and Woman in the Dunes is my favorite—perhaps because I saw it during a pandemic.

It’s that rare film that transports you to another world, then when it’s over it returns you to your world with fresh eyes and a lot to ponder. When I started to explain the film to someone today I realized it sounded like an extended episode from The Twilight Zone.

That Rod Serling classic TV program ran from 1959—1964, and the novel The Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe was published in 1962 and according to Wikipedia won the 1962 Yomiuri Prize for literature. Abe wrote the screenplay (with Eiko Yoshida credited as scriptor, though I am not sure what that means) and was directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

This is not a review of the film, just a few words to say that it is a great film to watch during a pandemic—especially if you’re in any kind of lockdown. The basic set up is the protagonist of the story is so caught up collecting and photographing bugs and insects that he misses the last bus back into town where he is staying.

Arrangements are made by local villagers for him to stay the night in a home that’s basically in a sandpit. Conflict ensues. As the Eagles sing in Hotel California, “You can check out, but you can never leave.” I’ll leave it at that. But when the movie was over I didn’t feel as confined by my world where much of my freedoms have been removed for the past seven or eight months.

Woman in the Dunes received two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign picture, Best Director), and was on filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky‘s handwritten list of his ten favorite movies.

P.S. This film is mostly a two actors in one location. It’s a fascinating study for low-budget filmmakers because of it embraces its limitations. But it packs in much of the stuff I’ve covered over and over again on this blog and in my book.
Inciting incident√
Major Dramatic Question √
Goals—Stakes—Urgency√
Clear intentions and obstacles√
Conflict (on multiple levels)√
Compelling characters√
Active protagonist√
You want to know “what happens next?”√
Builds toward a climax√
Change and transformation√
The ending is surprising and inevitable√

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
—Langston Hughes
Harlem 

 

When playwright/screenwriter Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was a 17-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison she walked into a rehearsal of Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, and the struggles she saw onstage in the tenements of Dublin, Ireland resonated with the struggles she saw growing up in the rougher parts of South Side of Chicago.

And a scene where a mother laments the loss of her son in the Irish Civil War left Hannsberry stunned. That theatrical experience combined with her childhood experience of moving into an unwelcomed white neighborhood (that started with windows being broken, and ended in the landmark Hansberry v. Lee lawsuit) provided the seeds for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The film version was released in 1961.

 

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Here’s a Vanity Fair clip of director Randel Kleiser walking through a scene from the timeless Grease featuring the song You’re the One That I Want sung by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta.

You’re the One That I Want is one of the top 20 selling singles of all time. 

Back in 1978 Travolta was over-the-top successful. He’d just come off an Oscar-nomination for Saturday Night Fever, was starring in the hit TV show Welcome Back Kotter, and had a hot song with Let Her In. Lesser remembered is a TV movie he did in 1976.

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble  was also directed by Randel Kleiser from a script by Douglas Day Stewart (screenwriter of An Officer and a Gentleman). I remember being a teenager and seeing The Boy in the Plastic Bubble when it came out on TV. I never saw it again and haven’t thought about it in a decade—or two. Until recently,  when the coronavirus started to take over the news.

And speaking of the coronavirus— and the other half of singing You’re the One That I Want…

Olivia Newton-John may have been my first celebrity crush. I bought her If you love me , let me know album when I was 13. That was 1974, a couple of years before the Farrah Fawsett poster came out. (Maureen McCormick, Marcia on The Brady Bunch, was in the mix around that time.)  I spent a lot of time listening to Olivia Newton-John’s music.

Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 9.51.39 PM

Olivia Newton-John’s battle with cancerhave been well documented over the years, and she recently relayed a stay at home message on her Instagram from some of the staff at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Australia.

Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 10.07.56 PM

If you need a smile today to break through the global news, here’s a video of Olivia Newton-John singing Bob Dylan’s If Not For You when she was in her early 20s.  That smile. That voice. Those eyes.

Scott W. Smith

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“Our stories, our books, our films are how we cope with the random trauma-inducing chaos of life as it plays out.”
—Bruce Springsteen

The antithesis of social distancing for me was the Bruce Springsteen concert I attended on October 2, 1985 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. It was also the best concert I ever attended.

It was the final night of the Born in the U.S.A. tour and, if I recall correctly. there were around 100.000 people in attendance. It was not only biggest crowd I’ve ever been a part of, but it was the longest one, too.

I think it was a soild 3 1/2 hours. I found the setlist of that night online, and the encore itself was 10 songs. The encore! Apparently Springteen  played 33 songs total. And he did a lot of talking between songs.

Yesterday I came across the above quote of Springsteen’s, that I think I pulled from his Broadway show that I saw on Netflix last year. This seems as good as any to point out to reflect on that quote. And to look at the three films from three different places around the globe (Los Angeles, Japan, and Denmark) that I think deal well with “trauma-inducing chaos.”

That includes loss of job, broken relationships, shipwreck, and terminal cancer. Jerry Maguire is such an timeless film that instead of posting the trailer, I’ve included the Springsteen song featured in Jerry Maguire.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Overnight, we went from an industry that makes $15 billion a year — $11 billion in ticket sales and $4 billion in concessions — to one that is not going to make a penny for three or four months,”
—John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).
Variety, March 21, 2020

Two weekends ago,  I was in Mt. Dora, Florida (just outside of Orlando) and I heard  that a group had plans in nearby Eustis to build the largest drive-in theater in the world. My first thought was it was a joke. But it wasn’t, and now the idea seems at least plausible.

Screen Shot 2020-03-22 at 6.17.45 AM

The proposed Lighthouse 5. — a five theater drive-in

Two weeks ago life was relatively normal in the United States as the Coronavirus was spreading around the world. Now restaurants and bars are closed. Both the NBA and MLB has suspended their seasons. Both New York and California on lock down as efforts are made to stop the spread of this pandemic. So, of course, movie theaters in the entire country are mostly closed. (Deadline reported that drive-ins did the most business.)

Since this is a screenwriting/filmmaking blog the question is not when when movie theaters open, but will they open? First there’s the billion dollar of box office revenue already lost, and the billions they will continue to lose as it appears that this virus will impact the world for months rather than days or weeks.

Movie theaters were already on shaky ground before this unprecedented in my lifetime occurred. Back in 1952, when the polio epidemic closed movie theaters,  going to a movie in a theater was still a thing. Not only was that long before the internet, it was a time when most people didn’t even have televisions.

Today video games are a bigger business than the movie industry, the internet (Facebook, YouTube, googling) occupy plenty of people’s free time, and cheap streaming services (Amazon, Netflix, Disney+, etc.) allow people to watch movies and TV shows on large screen TVs in their home.

Regardless of how this virus plays out, any business that’s dependent on large indoor crowds is going to have to rethink their business plan.  How long can concert promoters, sporting teams, and convention planners stay in business without business? I take a middle ground approach between hysteria (the sky is falling) and those that think this is overblown. It will forever change the way we do somethings. At least we have history on our side that we can bounce back.

But people have already been laid off, business are closing, and bankruptcies will follow. If the country heads into a recession, Florida can face a depression because it’s so dependent on tourism.  And like The Great Depression, some business will thrive. I’m sure Amazon, Walmart and most grocery stores have seen a boost in business. Domino’s pizza’s stock has gone up in this crisis and they’ve announcement that are hiring 10,000 people.  A FedEx guy told me Saturday that it was busier than Christmas for them.

But what’s going to happen to movie theaters? For those wondering how they’re going to pay their mortgage or rent, that question isn’t even on their radar?

“When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever.”
—Director Chris Nolan

I’ve been a regular movie attender ever since I got my driver’s license at age 16. But I know 16-year-olds today who are not only in no hurry to get a driver’s license, but rarely got to movie theaters.

Are drive in movie theaters going to make a comeback. I wouldn’t bet my money it will. I haven’t been to a drive-in theater in 20 or 30 years. Occasionally, when I drive by one now and then I get nostalgic. But I don’t see it ever being a regular part of my life again.

As a novelty, the theater in Eustis could work. They work a deal out to get the land discounted with the promise that it will be good for the town’s economy. In Florida, you can operate a drive-in year around. It’s not far from Disney World. I could see it work as a glorified RV park, with shopping and restaurants, and  a safe and fun place for people to hangout. And, of course, to watch a movie in the comfort of their own car.

But it’s not going to be the future of theatrical distribution. My hope is that when the dust settles from this virus—and the economic fallout—that there is a still a thing as a wide theatrical distribution.

P.S. Back in the early ’80s, I lived in an apartment complex just a couple of blocks from the Pickwick Drive-In theater in Burbank, California. It was famous for being where the shot part of Greece. It was torn down in 1989. That may have been the last drive-in theater where I watched a movie. According to this website there are still over 300 operating drive-ins in the United States.

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 2.00.37 PM

Scott W. Smith 

 

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