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With movie theaters closed, drive-ins made MI brothers’ horror flick America’s top movie

Though some COVID-19 restrictions are loosening, Michigan’s movie theaters are still closed. One alternative? Catching a film at a drive-in, a pastime that might just be making a comeback—and providing artists with a new way to connect with audiences.

The recent success of drive-ins has worked out well for Michigan brothers Drew and Brett Pierce. They directed the recently-released horror movie The Wretched. An independently-produced film about a witch who preys on children might typically have struggled to compete with big box office releases. But after it started screening at drive-ins, The Wretched became the top grossing film in the nation for several weeks.

The Pierce brothers, who have been working on the project for more than three years, explained that showing the film at drive-ins wasn’t part of the project’s original publicity and release plan, and that even limited theatrical releases are uncommon for most independent films. They said they were expecting The Wretched to screen at ten to 15 theaters, but then the pandemic hit. IFC, which distributed the film, made the pivot to releasing the film in drive-in theaters, and the movie’s success there surprised everyone.

“They just embraced it, and they were like, ‘Well, there’s more drive-ins, and there’s more openings, so let’s see if more people will show up,’ and it was like a snowball,” Brett said. 

Drive-in screenings, he added, provided the indie flick featuring relatively unknown actors with an unusual chance to gain public attention and reach more viewers through word of mouth.

“It’s opened a lot [of doors] for us, especially in the last month. We’ve been taking a lot of Zoom meetings about pitching on things, but also pitching other concepts that we want to make,” Brett said. “It literally, like, blew the doors open.”

Drew has designed characters for a number of films and television shows. He and Brett developed their “creature witch” through research on historical witch myths.

“There’s this one called Black Annie or Black Annis. It’s this English myth about, like, a blue-faced hag who steals children and devours them beneath her tree in the woods,” Drew said. “And then there’s another one called the Boo Hag, about this skin stealing, sort of body-swapping kind of witch.”

They said that the “creature witch” they ultimately created drew on both myths, along with a few extra “rules of [their] own.” They cast Michigan native and trained dancer Madelynn Stuenkel to play the character because of her creative movement audition.

The Pierce brothers said they both have had the chance to see the film at a drive-in themselves.

“It was such a nice relief to go somewhere where it was safe to be in your car and also be outside under the night sky and watch the sun set,” Brett said. “As much as I loved watching the movie, I think I loved just being at the drive-in as much.”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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