With Theatres Closed, Austinites Create Their Own Backyard Cinemas

Get a big-screen experience for your small group

Light up the night: Bat City Cinema founder Ivan Peycheff (r) is one of the growing number of people building an outdoor home theatre while the cinemas are closed. (Photo by John Anderson)

The first cinemas weren't handsome movie palaces, or multiscreen megaplexes. They were tents with a sheet for a screen and a projector on a table. In the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, with indoor theatres closed as they prioritize their customers' health over profits, Austinites are building their own backyard cinemas as a way to keep the pandemic blues away with some movie magic.

For Ivan Peycheff, it's a way to keep a little bit of normalcy in his life – of course, most people don't have a couple of 16mm projectors and a 72-inch screen around the house. A self-described "projectionist/film programmer/archivist/collector," he would go to the movies a couple of times a week: After he moved to Austin in 2015 he started booking nights at AFS Cinema and unconventional venues like bars and video stores, under the banner of Bat City Cinema. Now he's taken his huge collection of 16mm reels and turned that equipment into his own outdoor cinema – always making sure to strap the screen to a tree. "That Texas breeze can be a real challenge to a backyard screening sometimes," he said.

Dr. Strange scriptwriter C. Robert Cargill – a mainstay of Austin's film community since his days as a cable access critic – may not have celluloid spinning in his backyard, but he already had what he called "an economy system" of a simple digital projector and a foldaway screen for meetings around the house. He realized in early March that "whether businesses reopened or not, my wife and I were no doubt going to err on the side of caution and not go out to theatres until the danger had truly subsided."

Being home so much has definitely seen the system get more use. "In the past we might decide it wasn't worth breaking the setup out," he said, "but now any time spent outside is worth it, so we're out there three or four times a week now."

“We use my laptop and hook up to our home wifi, we use my son’s Bluetooth speaker he got for Christmas a few years ago, the projector I used for client meetings, [and] our bedroom is missing a flat sheet.” – Backyard cinema “manager” Teodora Pogonat

Award-winning art and portrait photographer Teodora Pogonat had to get a little more ingenious to put her system together. "We use my laptop and hook up to our home wifi, we use my son's Bluetooth speaker he got for Christmas a few years ago, [and] the projector I used for client meetings." As for the screen, she said, "Our bedroom is missing a flat sheet."

Local screenwriter, wrestling promoter, and former Beerland booker Max Meehan has launched what he calls Carport Cinema, with a digital projector in the trunk of his Honda and a screen on the house wall. He's had a few nights with friends – all seated at appropriate social distancing – but the real pleasure has been introducing his sons to the kind of spooky, scary, and fantastical films he grew up on, all thrills and chills at the 101 Drive-In in Ventura, Calif. He said, "That sort of curation is right up my alley, and my kids took to that subject matter like fish to a barrel." It's also been a way to help them understand what's happening in the world. He'd recently used Night of the Living Dead to explain the pandemic to his eldest son, and when they watched it together in the Carport Cinema "the scale of it felt really special to him."

It's been a similar experience for Pogonat, who explained that her favorite part of family film night "is listening to my kids talk about how awesome the movies we watched were, dissecting the action scenes and plot as if we just stepped out of the theatre on any previously normal day. It's brought us together as a family and [it's] incredibly amusing how much they enjoyed the outdoor cinema experience – despite all their groans of protest that because Mom picked the movies they must be lame!"

That's what's really important about a backyard cinema. Even the biggest, flattest, highest resolution, most millions-of-colors TV doesn't have the magic of light dancing across dust motes and striking a screen, and there's a sense of community and event about all settling down with the lights off – even with the flicker of citronella candles to keep the Texas bugs at bay. The Cargills have been supplementing their regular programming of streaming titles from Netflix and Shudder with "the $20 'still in theatres' rentals because we want to support those films and that model," said Cargill. "If we're excited about a movie (like Emma. or The Invisible Man) we were going to pay $30 for two tickets to the Drafthouse, so $20 doesn't seem so steep."

For Peycheff, it breaks the monotony of binging TV on the couch and "turns movie watching into somewhat of an event. ... Adding beer to the mix kinda reminds me of being at an Alamo at times, too."

Pogonat's equation is simple: "Popcorn and soda! Every time we went to the movies, it was just our thing to make sure to get the biggest bucket of popcorn and a small soda. So we always make sure to have that every time we watch a movie."

Over at Meehan's Carport Cinema, movie nights are an event, and he's been trying to keep them special by being sparing, with a screening every couple of weeks. Like the viewing mounds at the 101 Drive-In provided their own entertainment when the films didn't catch his attention, he's put a sandbox and water table under the screen, and even a tablet on the dashboard for alternate programming (while Night of the Living Dead was on the big screen, his youngest son watched Pixar's Up on Dad's tablet instead). He said, "This past weekend, the kids rotated from the car, to chairs in front of the screen, to the sandbox, to chasing fireflies."

That's what matters: Whether it's Pey­cheff threading up Ken Russell's 1967 spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain to watch with his partner, or Pogonat introducing her kids to The Matrix trilogy, it's about being together. Pogonat said, "Such a simple, thrown together setup has brought a small bit of normalcy in a rather unorthodox time."

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Summer Fun, Backyard Cinema, Summer Fun 2020, Max Meehan, C. Robert Cargill, Teodora Pogonat, Ivan Peycheff, Coronavirus, Bat City Cinema

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