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.”
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