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The only little movie screen in the capital of Texas

It may not look like much, but here is a small slice of cinematic and social normalcy in these crazy..

By admin , in Tech , at March 22, 2020

  • It may not look like much, but here is a small slice of cinematic and social normalcy in these crazy times: the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in. Nathan Mattise
  • The poster for an unusual event: some genuine big film-festival premieres at your neighborhood drive-in. Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in

AUSTIN, Texas—For a brief period of time on Tuesday evening, the debates in one particular part of East Austin could be blissfully trivial again: sit inside or outside? Want Milk Duds or Buncha Crunch?

And which one was best—the one about the pregnancy or the one involving waffles?

The rapidly evolving situation surrounding COVID-19, aka the coronavirus, has impacted seemingly everyone and everything by this point in time. But among those impacted by this virus, the film fraternity in Central Texas stood as one of the first US communities hit hard in the public spotlight. On March 6, Austin Mayor Steve Adler walked to the podium and declared the state of emergency that effectively canceled South by Southwest for the first time in the festival's 34-year history. And within days, health officials rapidly shrank recommended gathering sizes from 2,500 to 250 to 50 to no more than 10. Fans, filmmakers, and everyone in the broader industry both here and afar suddenly not only lost one of their annual linchpins for business and pleasure, they lost virtually all cinematic experiences.

So the day after Adler's proclamation, Josh Frank floated his idea on Facebook. Any filmmakers want to still air their stuff at my drive-in? Twenty-plus emails and 10 days later, the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In opened up its screen this week for the first of four evenings of "SXSocial Distance: A Night of Short Films."

"Originally I was going to put the Facebook post up and, if no filmmakers reached out, I was going to let it go," Frank, the founder and owner of the Blue Starlite, tells Ars. "But Tim [Norfolk, one of only a handful of drive-in employees] was so enthusiastic about the idea, it made me more enthusiastic—I guess this kind of matters, it's not a throwaway idea.

"So I kind of expected this to happen, but the feature [films] didn't write back. Features aren't going to do a throwaway event because festivals want to say it's the world premiere or the US premiere. But I started getting emails back from the shorts, which makes sense. Those are the guys that are the most fucked. They have the hardest time getting any attention, and this festival and the newsworthiness of that premiere would've been huge to them. So they realized it could be salvaged: they could still show their movies in Austin and also do something newsworthy. Maybe they didn't get to show at SXSW, but a drive-in offered its screens."

A brief visual history of the Blue Starlite in Austin

At the (mini urban) drive-in

After founding the space in 2010, Frank and the Blue Starlite team entered this year ready to celebrate their 10th anniversary in the fall. With two adult passes and a BYO-everything car costing just north of $20, it's always been among the more affordable places to catch a film. But now, out of roughly 5,800 movie theaters in the United States (approximately 320 of which are drive-ins), this venue remains one of only places in the country to catch a movie outside of your home, period.

"I never thought I'd say this, but we're literally the only movie theater operating in Austin, Texas, and the surrounding areas. I never expected that to be the truth," Frank says. "In a lot of people's minds, it kind of revalidated what a drive-in could be for society."

If you've ever been to a drive-in, however, the Blue Starlite likely represents something different. Yes, you still tune your FM dials and can find some concessions in a trailer off to the side. But it's almost as if someone had ample amounts of central Texas ranchland and invited their larger network over to enjoy a backyard projector. Frank rents land tucked away between a newly built neighborhood and a Moose Lodge and fits in as many screens as he can (the central Austin location currently has three, so there's a variety of showings every night). Any visions of a few hundred cars packed in on top of each other decidedly isn't Blue Starlite's style. Instead, normal capacity for the biggest screen only sits around 30 cars, and even that has been scaled back for now.

"The idea was always to have a drive-in on a human scale—the drive-in as old needed to be big, but the drive-in as new needed to be small so it could fit into the city," Frank explains. "And it turns out the idea of small, with what we're going through right now, it's exactly what's needed. Not just an outdoor movie. Not just a movie in a car. When you have a drive-in that's only 20-30 cars, everyone that comes in gets to feel it's their special night. But with what's going on, small also means people can feel a little more safe, a little comfortable."

Listing image by Nathan Mattise

  • Ingrid Haas' Still Wylde has everything you'd want in a short: humor, heart, a clear and unique story, and obvious potential for a compelling full-length film. Chris Weslund
  • Carlyn Hudson's Waffle is a delightful horror-comedy concept. In a totally believable near-future, what happens if friendship becomes gig work? Carlyn Hudson / SXSW
  • Dating is hard. Dating in the age of FaceTime is even harder in Izzy Shill's Face to Face Izzy Shill / SXSW
  • Chelsea Devantez's Basic is painfully (and hilariously) relatable. Kevin Walsh
  • Dean Colin Marcial's Reminiscences of the Green Revolution, "The Breakfast Club by way of Che Guevara" per its description, took viewers inside young environmental activists in the Philippines. Gym Lumbera

Salute those shorts

Maybe a night of shorts sounds to many like "a night of the stuff we have to sit through ahead of every Toy Story," but these 3- to 20-minute snackbite stories can be a big deal, especially at film festivals. Often they function as proofs of concepts, showcasing either the story itself or particular elements (the director, and actor, the cinematography, etc.) with aspirations of a full feature film. At SXSW in particular, it's become routine to see arthouse favorites (Prospect) and the work of future global stars (Fred Armisen's Guide to Music and SXSW) hidden among a given year's shorts' slate.

The other night at Blue Starlite, it became quickly obvious how much talent is hidden within any festival's yearly schedule. This compact six-film schedule had comedies about dating via video chat (Izzy Shill's Face to Face) and Instagram hate browsing (Chelsea Devantez's Basic). Meanwhile, Carlyn Hudson's Waffle is an alarmingly realistic, near-future dark-comedy-meets-Black-Mirror riff about friends on demand and a rich waffle heiress.

But one film in particular reinforced the idea that the film community loses something when shorts get missed either by ignorance or global pandemic: Still Wylde is a 12-minute story about a pregnancy that wasn't. Actor Ingrid Haas makes her debut as writer/director with this humorous and heartfelt look at the under-discussed experience of a lost pregnancy. Despite the brisk run time, the film manages to fit in a lot: unflinching moments that show how hard and emotional this situation can repeatedly be; tremendous performances from Haas and castmates like Juzo Yoshida; and laugh-out-loud bits of painfully relatable dialogue on the cost range for pregnancy tests or the anti-vaxxers in the neighborhood. Not only did the four adults in my car immediately recognize Still Wylde as the star of the night, it felt like something special we all could totally envision (and looked forward to seeing) as a full-length feature down the road.

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