How to Create a Drive-In Film Festival in Your Community

Drive-In Theater
Drive-In screenings give you the opportunity to share your work and give back to the community.

One of the silver linings of this difficult summer is the resurgence of the drive-in movie theater. In the wake of the pandemic, movie theaters came to an abrupt shutdown. Personally, I went from seeing 2-3 movies a week on my subscription to none, and streaming everything definitely made me miss the communal experience of watching a movie collectively. Drive-In theaters provide the option to safely regain some of the magic of the movie-going experience.

Not just for 80’s standards and family films, some are trying to find added value and the larger connection to filmmaking and culture. In New Jersey, Newark Moonlight Cinema highlights African American filmmakers, actors, and actresses. Rooftop Films in Brooklyn and Queens adapted their screening series to the pandemic restrictions, striking a balance between commercial, independent, and shorts programs.

Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020
Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020

On the tip of Long Island’s North Fork, we built our own experience: Sound Side Film Festival.

For my partners, filmmakers Alley Leinweber and Zoe Fleer (a.k.a Wild Jelly), it started and ended with community. There are two sides of the coin when it comes to the pandemic experience:

  • The global: A shared experience around the world and technology bridging physical and communication gaps
  • The local: Staying put and living your life within a narrow space and counting on your neighbors.

Wild Jelly’s filmmaking mission includes a clear throughline going from production to distribution that is inextricably tied to the community. Last summer they shot a short on the North Fork and, as any independent filmmaker knows, they relied on the help and participation from the local network. When film distribution pivoted to online or none at all, that became an opportunity to reassess the default way things are done.

Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020
Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020

Traditionally, reaching the finish line with your independent short film can be an insular path, from your editing room to film festivals, to a web premiere or a streaming platform where it can continue to live online. It was exciting to challenge that model and premiere the film where it was made, which so rarely happens, as a way to continue the film's journey. The spark that ignited the process was a link to a place, and the drive-in festival builds on that link as an answer to a sense of isolation through a shared experience.

So, you want to organize a drive-in film festival... where do you start?

Partner Up

The linchpin for Sound Side was our partnership with CAST, a local food bank working tirelessly amidst the crisis. CAST has been a strong presence in the area for years and was already holding fundraising events in order to withstand the demand for support. They were the ideal partner, bringing to the table their experience, a worthwhile charity cause, and strengthening the community ties.

Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020
Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020

Find the Right Space

Next step, space. You want a large space, flat or slightly sloped dependent on-screen placement. Minimal light pollution, so probably outside a city. On the North Fork, it was a beautiful grassy vineyard. We spaced the cars apart in a way that you could safely set up chairs or a blanket outside your vehicle and watch that way, and offered external speakers, as well as the ability to transmit to car radios. We found that if you reach out to recreational businesses, hotels, campgrounds, that may have suffered, they are eager to help and provide accommodation. Even though it’s two hours from the city, many New Yorkers jumped on the opportunity to take part... on any budget.

An important element was the multidimensionality of the space, extending the experience beyond the screen and the details tailored to a pandemic experience. We built an outdoor gallery to present and sell works of art from New York artist Anthony Richichi. Also, the Secret Garden, a lantern-lit path where people could go and record themselves answering prompts about what’s been on their mind during the pandemic. The goal to allow people to express what they had been internalizing was part of the catharsis we were hoping to achieve. These materials now create a feedback loop for continued creation, the basis for a show in development, and keeping the iterative process alive

The Festival Map. Artwork by Amanda Lynn Kim
The Festival Map. Artwork by Amanda Lynn Kim

For programming, we enlisted the help of film historian Paula Masood, who not only is an expert in her field but is also part of the local community. We wanted to show a mixture of works from emerging as well as established filmmakers. A program that would be diverse enough that anyone could find a piece that speaks to them.

In a way, the short film is a natural fit to show in a drive-in; it’s curated toward an experience that is entirely different from that of a traditional movie theater.

You have to embrace that you are not in a sterile, blank environment, or a dark room void of external senses. The Drive-In is an environment where you can get distracted by the stars or take a walk and come back for the next film.

Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020
Daniel Leinweber, Razberry Photography, 2020

An overwhelming feeling that arose from the Secret Garden confessionals and responses after the event is that of hope and a sense of liberation. It certainly gave us hope for the emergence of unique ways to adapt to the changing industry, when public screenings are scarce. It also offered an way to share work with others in a time of isolation.

Like many worthwhile endeavors it takes a village. We had many volunteers, ushering cars, manning concessions, building exhibitions. It comes down to having a strong network, nominally our partner in CAST. The incredible support from the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Fund that at the start of the pandemic offered additional funding to projects in its network, and especially our family, friends, and neighbors

Are you organizing in your community? Let us know in the comments below.     

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