'Guerrilla drive-ins' turn movie nostalgia on its head

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
John Young, center, creator of West Chester Guerilla Drive-In, and Andy Rodriguez, right, prepare a film projector May 29 inside Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia. The screening is part of a growing trend of impromptu outdoor movie screenings. (Joseph Kaczmarek ~ Associated Press)

PHILADELPHIA -- Think the only way to see a big-screen movie is while slurping a 64-ounce soft drink, eating a $5 candy bar and shushing the wannabe film critic behind you?

That's not the case anymore, thanks to people like John Young, creator of the West Chester Guerilla Drive-In and part of a loosely knit network of celluloid renegades resurrecting the drive-in for a new age.

"Nowadays, you push a button and a movie appears," he said. "There's fun in the inconvenience of having to get off the couch and go somewhere you might not be familiar with, maybe getting rained on, maybe being cold. It makes it an adventure."

For the past four years or so, the 38-year-old web developer has been showing films -- real, honest-to-goodness 16 mm film -- from a 1970s school projector mounted on the sidecar of his 1977 BMW motorcycle.

He has presented more than a dozen movies at locations suited for the theme: "Meatballs" at a canoe rental center, "Caddyshack" on a golf course, and most recently, "Ghostbusters" at Fort Mifflin, a favorite haunt of paranormal investigators.

It's not exactly an evening at the local multiplex -- and that's the point.

"What a great idea. What a great way to see a movie," said Jim Haighey, of West Chester, one of more than 60 people watching "Ghostbusters" projected in front of the fort's 211-year-old Citadel. All had to first find a hidden AM receiver in West Chester transmitting a secret code before being e-mailed the location of the movie.

Guerrilla drive-ins or "MobMovs" -- shorthand for mobile movies -- are popping up around the country in a variety of configurations.

Unlike Young's old-school use of real film, guerrilla drive-ins typically eschew the analog in favor of DVDs and LCD projectors.

And while West Chester's guerrillas bring lawn chairs to watch their movies under the stars, other groups maintain the drive-in tradition of watching from inside their cars. Audio is heard through each car's radio by way of an FM transmitter.

Whatever the arrangement, guerrilla drive-ins give new meaning to the phrase "community theater." People can get up, walk around and socialize during the show if they wish, with some MobMovs taking on the feel of tailgate parties.

And though they're decidedly DIY-style, all aspiring MobMovers are urged to keep it legal and secure required approvals from property owners and film distributors, who charge roughly $150 to $300 for a showing. Guerrilla drive-ins are typically free, with attendees' donations used to offset the organizer's expenses.

Since 2005, 28-year-old San Francisco web developer Bryan Kennedy has shown classics, as well as independent films looking for distributors, and runs MobMov.org, a site that lists 240-plus movie mobs around the world.

"A lot of independent filmmakers are enabled by modern technology [to make their own movies], but the area where they're not enabled is distribution," he said. "There's no channel for them to get out there, no audience interaction or feedback. We can help support that."

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