A Louisiana independent filmmaker used a dilapidated New Roads shopping center to carve a piece of history.
Baton Rouge native Aaron L. Williams used the Olinde Street shopping center to bring the parish its first-ever drive-in movie, even if for only one weekend. He partnered with Spirit Life International Ministry, pastored by the Rev. Dr. Brian L. Banks, to bring the movie to New Roads.
“Everyone has been stuck in the house during the pandemic and the Baton Rouge area theaters have been closed, so this gave us the opportunity to bring something positive to the parish – something that could have people praising, laughing and crying at the same time,” Banks said.
Greta Early traveled from Baton Rouge with her son Josh and niece Stara to see the movie.
While her son and niece had never seen a drive-in movie, the outing brought back memories for Early.
“The last time I went to a drive-in movie was 1974 in Lafayette, when you still had the metal speaker boxes you mounted to your window,” she said, ND still remembers the last movie saw at a drive-in.
“It was ‘The Exorcist’ – the scariest movie I ever saw,” Early recalled. “The movie we’re seeing here tonight is far from that.”
Williams used the drive-in experience to present his film, “The Perfect Mate,” which Williams described as a “faith-based romantic comedy.”
He filmed the movie on location in Baton Rouge, Plaquemine and St. Francisville.
The film made its way to New Roads after two weeks in Baton Rouge. He has 15 more dates scheduled plans to bring it to 26 states.
Williams wanted to release his film to theaters early this year, but the pandemic blocked that plan, and forced him to think outside the box.
“So many studios are going to Netflix and Amazon Prime, but as an independent producer, I would’ve gotten swallowed up if I’d have gone straight to video on-demand,” he said. “I realized if I got this huge screen and took it around from community to community, that would be the best way in the pandemic to get the word out of what I’m doing in communities.”
The film is the consummate grass-roots project. Williams did the fundraising himself and found investors who shared his values.
“Once we did that, I had to write the script and proof it and then got heavily involved with the casting,” he said. “I did the writing, the casting, the color correction and I hired a guy for the score, but I told him exactly how I wanted the songs written.”
It’s a common practice for independent producers, but he took things one step further.
With his own crew, he sets up the 30- by 40-foot inflatable projection screen – something iconic directors Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg probably never did during their careers.
“I got the inflatable screen because I wanted something that could be portable and easy to set up,” he said. “It wraps up like a tire.”
Williams, 40, had never been to a drive-in movie, a popular pastime in another era. The medium was almost extinct when he was born.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, a total of 4,063 drive-in movie lots dotted the American landscape when the industry peaked in 1958.
Only 300 operate in 2020.
Baton Rouge had five drive-ins between 1941 and 1984. New Roads had several movie theaters, going as far back as 1912 with the Past Time Electric Theatre and winding down with the King Theatre, which operated from 1949-82, according to Pointe Coupee Parish historian Brian Costello.
New Roads never had a drive-in movie, he said.
The drive-in concept set the tone Williams envisioned for the movie.
“I never got to experience drive-ins, but I actually married the girl I was dating, and I was always a hopeless romantic, so I always felt like nighttime had this certain atmosphere about it,” he said. “I wondered how I could do it outdoors, and that’s when the drive-in concept hit me.
“It allowed me to create not just a drive-in movie, but a whole experience,” Williams said. “What better way to do it than show a romantic movie under the stars?”
He even offered concessions provided by curb service as another way to raise money during the showing.
To keep in the drive-in experience, he said he may incorporate the vintage concession stand vignettes that became as popular as the movies in the heyday.
He drew 250 cars in Abbeville, 200 in Baton Rouge and approximately the same total for three screenings in New Roads.
Other churches have since approached Williams about bringing the movie to their area.
The movie night provided an opportunity to offer something new – and old – to the community, Banks said.
“In the course of one night, we provided an opportunity for families to spend time together for a movie that brings a positive message about family and marriage,” he said.
“At the same time, the drive-in showing allowed us to bring something Pointe Coupee Parish never had before – and it may not be the last time we see it here.”
As part of the film, two books – “Just What the Doctor Ordered” and “The Marriage Boot Camp Study Session” – were available.
The books, by Larkin and Shirley Weber, tie into the movies. They help those that are single and want to be married, along with those that are married and struggle to be happily married.
They also offer advice for those who are engaged and need to know how to have a successful relationship even amid issues that arise.