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After SXSW Cancellation, a Drive-In Theater in Austin Comes to the Rescue

The Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In is still open for business, and screening SXSW shorts that lost their shot at a festival premiere.

A neon sign glows on the opening night of the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In movie theater, Friday, Oct.11, 2013, in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. The theatre was opened by Josh Frank, 38, of Miami Beach, Fla., who has another outdoor theater in Austin, TexasFlorida Daily Life, Miami, USA

Lynne Sladky/AP/Shutterstock

When SXSW was forced to cancel its 2020 edition due to the current pandemic, it was a hard hit for the film community and especially for those filmmakers now left without a home for their new projects. The Austin festival was set to run March 13 through 22, but now participating filmmakers are scrambling to land their movies elsewhere.

However, even at a time when movie theaters around the nation have shut their doors en masse, drive-in theaters are unexpectedly having a moment. That includes the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, open year-round in Austin, Texas, whose founder, Josh Frank, is doing his part to help out SXSW filmmakers left adrift.

Last week, as highlighted in a story from Ars Technica, the Blue Starlite polled SXSW filmmakers who might want to see their films premiere at the drive-in, kicking off the first in a series of screenings dubbed “SXSocial Distance: A Night of Short Films.” The first of four planned evenings was a success, thanks to filmmakers offering to premiere their shorts at the venue.

“So I kind of expected this to happen, but the feature [films] didn’t write back,” Frank told Ars Technica. “Features aren’t going to do a throwaway event because festivals want to say it’s the world premiere or the U.S. premiere.” That makes sense, as feature films are likely looking to land at festivals down the line — though with Cannes now postponed, the circuit is going to be more clustered and competitive than ever.

“I started getting emails back from the shorts, which makes sense. Those are the guys that are the most fucked,” Frank said. “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.”

“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.”

The next SXSocial Distance screening is set for this Thursday, March 26. But the Blue Starlite has plenty of other great programming lined up, as seen on the theater’s Facebook page. Screenings include “The Princess Bride,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Uncut Gems,” “The Big Lebowski,” and more.

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