New Yorkers are getting their reels on wheels.
Drive-in movies became a popular pandemic-chic pastime, with locals jockeying for space at screenings in area parking lots and getting crafty with DIY set-ups.
Lesley Stordahl and her husband, Mike Smith, even set up a projector and screen in their Carroll Gardens driveway so their kids would have a safe, socially distanced activity that’s “turned into quite the event,” she said.
Others have hosted more guerrilla-style affairs amid the coronavirus lockdown. During one recent DIY drive-in screening, party guests backed down a dead-end street and parked combat-style. The event’s host tied two shower curtains to a chain-link fence to fashion a makeshift screen and asked that everyone tune their radios to 88.1 FM. Then the 1979 film “The Warriors” illuminated the jury-rigged screen.
“I was glowing for days after — for a whole week I was on a high,” said Jasmina, who organized the socially distant Brooklyn drive-in for her 42nd birthday and asked to withhold her last name due to the stigma around public gatherings. “It was the first time I saw more than three people at the same time since the start of the pandemic.”
It took her three nights of scouting to find a block without streetlights so as to minimize ambient light for a clearer projection. A pal, meanwhile, lent her a radio transmitter, projector and generator — a small price to pay for having a COVID-safe good time.
For those looking to host a drive-in, bike-in, paddle-in or other projection-related outdoor gathering of their own, here’s everything to know before pressing “play.”
Screens & walls
Chris “See J” Jordan, a Brooklyn-based projection artist, recommends finding a white wall to project on or acquiring a large swath of perforated material. Specifically, he suggests getting a mesh screen made by New Jersey-based fabric manufacturer Dazian and acquiring poles to stand it up.
While it’s possible to buy or rent a commercial-quality screen, he said, it’s a pricey endeavor that only marginally improves quality.
For those who go the wall route, “the flatter the surface the better,” Tim Chung, the owner of Bushwick bar and restaurant Syndicated, told The Post. His venue has been projecting films onto the wall of its building since August, and plans to continue hosting screenings through at least the end of November.
The larger the surface the better, although there is also an established formula to determine the ideal screen size for — and distance from — every projector.
When choosing a projector, Chung said, mind the specs for contrast ratio and lumens, which determine how bright the visual will be. “The higher the contrast ratio the better,” said Chung. Higher is also better for lumens.
Syndicated uses Epson projectors, which cost $1,000 to $2,000 each — but hobbyists need not pay so much. “You could spend as much as you want on a projector,” Chung said. The difference between a $500 and $2,000 projector is “pretty drastic,” however, the difference becomes less significant as the price goes beyond that.
For those working within a bare-bones budget, it’s possible to use a smartphone by hooking it up to a projector with a phone-to-HDMI adapter, but the resolution will be significantly lower.
While projectors often now come with internal, Bluetooth-equipped speakers, both experts recommended using a separate speaker system. “Wires are safer and more reliable,” said Chung, encouraging drive-in organizers to physically connect their equipment to avoid needing to recalibrate midmovie. As a further precaution against the “nightmare” of midscreening technical issues, Jordan encouraged hosts to “test, test, test” their space’s sound system, power source and lighting ahead of the screening itself. Crucially, “always download ahead of time.”
If possible, position your speakers above your audiences’ heads because the sound will carry better, Jordan said.
And for actual drive-ins, which viewers attend from the comfort (and heat) of their own cars, radio transmitters can be found for quite cheap and generally hook into a computer’s audio jack. “The radio transmitter worked magic,” said Jasmina of her experience. “You have amazing surround sound in your car and don’t upset your neighbors.”
For those looking to rent speakers, projectors or screens, Brooklyn-based nonprofit Rooftop Films has affordable deals.
With the exception of a torrential downpour, “weather shouldn’t stop you,” said Jordan. “It can actually be one of the most magical things in the world, watching a movie outdoors in the rain.”
In case of precipitation, just protect the electronics (Jordan has personally had success strapping an umbrella to a projector) and don’t worry about the screen: “Fabric can get wet and dry just fine.”
As for winterizing a setup, Syndicated has two different types of heating for their cold-weather strategy: infrared heat lamps mounted in its seating area and propane heat lamps on the sidewalks. “They’re both warm and good for anywhere from, like, 40- to 60-degree weather,” said Chung. “Electric heat lamps will cost more up front, but the propane, you have to replace the tanks pretty often,” he added — a significant cost and inconvenience.
There are some nuanced laws surrounding public gatherings and projections to keep in mind. For instance, it is illegal to project across a roadway or water, which could blind a driver or boater and cause a wreck, said Jordan.
Also, “if you’re in a public space, you legally have to have permission from the building owner,” said Jordan, although permission can often be quickly achieved by asking.
Municipal law dictates not blocking streets or sidewalks, and be wary of large radio transmitters, the operation of which is a federal crime under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations.
Finally, “it’s a really bad idea to do any advertising, because that’s then considered illuminated signage and you’re not going to get permission for that,” said Jordan. All illuminated signs in NYC require permits.