What’s old is new again in the time of COVID—at least when it comes to drive-in theaters. The nostalgia of piling into a car to go to the movies runs deep in American culture, dating back to pre-WWII, even. Though the advent of TV, VCRs/DVDs and now streaming services pushed drive-ins away from much of modern society (only five remain in North Carolina), with social-distancing measures in place and phase two of NC excluding the opening of movie theaters, Cucalorus Film Festival is answering the call to resurrect a temporary Wilmington drive-in. In partnership with UNCW Office of the Arts, StarNews and WHQR, Curbside Cinema will kick off Friday, July 10.
“We had folks reaching out to us every day—from StarNews to the hospital—asking whether it was possible [to organize a drive-in],” says Dan Brawley, executive director of Cucalorus. “We even had people in other small towns reaching out, from Tarboro to Nags Head. So it was pretty clear people wanted to see this happen.”
Brawley noticed other film festivals launching drive-ins, and so he sat in on a meeting with the Film Festival Alliance to learn about resources to make it happen locally. “More than 200 people joined from all over the country,” Brawley says. “Lots of great advice and even some small but essential things, like making sure we had an easy way to jumpstart people’s cars in case their batteries die during the movie!” (Folks tune into an FM station to hear the movie, and likely will want their A/C running for reprieve against the balmy heat.)
Outdoor screenings are nothing new to Cucalorus, which hosts its annual five-day festival every November. “2020’s festival will be a hybrid event with some things happening outdoors and in-person, but also with lots of online programming so that our beloved community of filmmakers and friends who live in New York and Miami and all over the planet can be part of this year’s event,” according to Brawley. Cucalorus has been doing family-friendly nights in parks and parking lots in Wilmington as part of their Popup Cinema program that started six years ago. They purchased a turnkey package from Epic Outdoor Cinema in Florida, which includes a 20-foot screen (though, they want to upgrade to a 30-foot soon), and have hosted hundreds of events to date.
“We have a regular series in the Town of Leland and at the Whirligig Park in Wilson, NC,” Brawley says. “We’ve done screenings all over from Wrightsville Beach Park to Tidal Creek and on campus at UNCW for the Lumina Festival.”
The annual Lumina Festival was slated to take place over two weeks in July. The celebration of arts includes everything from opera to theatre, films to music, dance to visual art exhibits. COVID-19 forced the UNCW Office of the Arts to reschedule what would have been Lumina Festival’s fourth year.
“We are envisioning it as a spring festival, to be held in March 2021,” says Fidias Reyes, director of arts engagement. “This becomes a great opportunity to get more student involvement, take some of our activities off-campus and get out of the heat! We’re still very early in the planning process.”
UNCW is undertaking the majority of the operations for the Curbside Cinema drive-in series. Brawley summoned the help of StarNews features editor John Staton to curate the movie lineup. “We really wanted a mix of classic films, blockbusters, films made in Wilmington, kids movies, and works that speak to the current cultural moment,” Brawley tells. The schedule will consist of the locally shot “Iron Man 3” on July 10; “Coco” on July 17; “Miss Juneteenth” on July 24; and “The Karate Kid” on July 31. A short, family-friendly animated film will screen ahead of each feature.
“‘Miss Juneteenth’ is definitely the one I’m most excited to share,” Brawley says. “It premiered at Sundance in January, and it speaks to the way Cucalorus brings recent, relevant, and even challenging films to the screen. I think this is the film that is likely to generate discussion and dialogue, which is such an important part of the Cucalorus mission: to create community through storytelling. And we’re dedicated to amplifying stories about Black women and making more space to heal and move forward in trying to bring equity and justice to our world.”
Brawley wants to hear from the audience and community at large as to what they would like to see should the drive-in become a mainstay during COVID. Brawley says they’re in need of sponsors to keep it going.
“The mix moving forward should be similar to these first four [movies],” he says. “I think when you’re outdoors, and even more so for a drive-in, the films need to be bold and big. Subtle moments can be lost in the outdoor experience. Again, we’re definitely looking for feedback for the next four and beyond.”
Tickets are $28 per carload and can be purchased on UNCW’s website or by calling 910-962-3500. The parking lot opens at 7 p.m., and the movies begin at 8:30 p.m.