Picnic and a Movie: Warming Up with Austin’s Cinema East Programmers

By  · Published on June 4th, 2012

I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago that it was the Paramount Theatre’s Summer Classic Film series that lured me to Austin 14 years ago, but Austin truly became the city of my dreams during the Summer of 2010 when Cinema East began. Life really does not get much better than spending warm summer nights, outside on a picnic blanket, with a six-pack of beer (or bottle of wine), watching some of my favorite films of the festival circuit with an audience of 400–700 people. Sure, I could do without the humidity and the mosquitoes, but otherwise Cinema East is as close to heaven as I might ever get.

Now in its third summer, Cinema East kicks off on June 10 with Bob Byington’s newest feature, Somebody Up There Likes Me, with Byington and star Nick Offerman in attendance for a Q&A. Cinema East will run every other Sunday through August 19, featuring screenings of Gayby (June 24), Kid Thing (July 8), Sun Don’t Shine (July 22), King Kelly (August 5), and Girl Walk // All Day (August 19).

Gates open at 7 p.m. with DJ sets from Mouthfeel and Flying Turns. The films will begin at sundown (approximately 9 p.m.) and will be followed by Q&A’s with the filmmakers. Admission to Cinema East is a mere $3. Oh, and for all of the movie-loving pups out there, Cinema East is a very dog-friendly environment (just be sure to bring a human chaperon). Also, even though Cinema East is BYOB (you can bring your own food too), several vendors (including Frank, GoodPop and Shiner) will be on hand to sell concessions (including vegan options). To top it all off, there will be free after-parties at Cheer Up Charlies following every screening.

Okay, and now to discuss the proverbial elephant in the room… Last year the French Legation proved to be the idyllic environment for Cinema East, and there is definitely some disappointment that Cinema East had to find a new home for their summer of 2012 season. That said, however, their new location at Yellow Jacket Stadium (1156 Hargrave St.) seems like a more than suitable replacement. An easily accessible east side track field, Yellow Jacket Stadium contributes all proceeds to support East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach (ESYSSO). It won’t be as easy to stumble from Cinema East to Cheer Up Charlies, but I know we’ll survive.

I met up with Cinema East founder Maggie Lea and co-producer/programmer Carlyn Hudson at Progress Coffee to discuss the awesomely Austintatious uniqueness of Cinema East…

Cinema East obviously isn’t a cash cow, what is your motivation for putting on Cinema East?

Maggie Lea: I started it with my friend Scott [Jawson] and our goal was to have outdoor screenings on the east side, which is something that wasn’t happening at the time. There was a lot accessible music stuff going on, but there wasn’t a young crowd going out to film events. We started Cinema East off as a free series just to get people out. I had gone to a few festivals that year and I wanted my Austin friends to see some of the films that I was seeing. I also wanted to integrate a Q&A situation into Cinema East. It all started as a sort of DIY/community-oriented/grassroots type of event, and has become a film series or summer long festival. But our main goals are accessibility and getting the word out about indie films.

Carlyn Hudson: It’s a community event for the independent film community. We heard time after time last year that our screenings were the biggest audiences that the filmmakers had ever had. It was so cool for the filmmakers that 400–700 people saw their film. It is pretty unique ‐ even at film festivals, unless you are the marquee opening night film ‐ that so many people are going to see your film at a screening. It is really great exposure for filmmakers. And, our audience is not made up of filmmakers, they are just young people who want to go to a cool event and by happenstance they love the films that we show.

A big part of Cinema East’s success in being able to draw such large crowds to relatively obscure independent films is due to the atmosphere you create. There is always a music element, food and alcohol vendors, the filmmakers are in attendance…

ML: It definitely feels like an event. We have been asked if we wanted to do some screenings in local theaters, but a lot of our audience would not be interested unless it was some kind of “event.” Cinema East is a social thing and the crowd stays to watch the films.

CH: Inevitably, the kind of films that we play are not blockbusters or Hollywood films, so not everyone is going to like them. If you create something that is a “see and be seen” event, then people come back every other week because they like the event and the crowd. They may not like all of the movies, but that’s okay.

ML: Usually if they don’t like the movie, I hear them at the after-parties [at Cheer Up Charlies] talking about it. Some of the films last summer were very polarizing, but still people were talking about the films and the event. It was sort of a “I was there, were you?” thing. There were people who said that they really hated a certain film, but they never said that they were not going to go back to Cinema East.

CH: I’m pushing for us to play one very polarizing film this year ‐ no, it is not Compliance. [Hint: it is King Kelly.] Its tough. We have a really hard time programming sometimes because I wonder if the film is really going to piss people off. I don’t know. We’ll see…

How did you approach programming Cinema East 2012?

CH: Based on the fact that we are an outdoor, summer, BYOB, picnic-style screening ‐ that influences our choices. There are some films that won’t play well at Cinema East. Comedies play well. Lighter and weirder films do well. Dark, subtle dramas have a hard time ‐ it is just not the right atmosphere for that kind of film.

But, Dustin Guy Defa’s Bad Fever played really well last summer —

ML: Yeah, that worked. The guys really liked that one a lot. For weeks afterwards, guys kept coming up to me saying that was their favorite film of Cinema East 2011. But our screenings that really swell with people ‐ our peak screenings ‐ are always the dark, funny ones. The first year it was Andrew Drazek’s Cummings Farm (which is now All American Orgy), which is weird and comical.

CH: And last summer for Winnebago Man we had over 700 people.

ML: So, the funny films seem to draw the most people but we are not trying to shut out the dramas. And I always try to program films that have some kind of music element too. Last year we screened Rainbows End and the guy from the film played at the after-party. I know a large part of our crowd is looking for a party. Oh, but I also don’t want people to think that this is just an event for young people. We get all kinds of people. I see a lot families and older couples at the screenings.

CH: It was really difficult this year for us because there were so many films that we wanted to play. The goal of ours for this summer was to have a more diverse line-up.

ML: Last year a lot of the films were narratives by auteurs.

CH: Yeah, and more subtle. This year the selections are a little wilder.

How important is it to you to have the filmmakers attend their Cinema East screening?

ML: It is really important to me because of the whole accessibility thing. You don’t have to pay $500 for a badge, then sit in a movie theater to wait for an interaction ‐ that may or may not happen ‐ with the filmmaker. Film festivals are typically very detached or passive experiences. I want people to feel like our screenings are in a big Austin backyard and that the filmmakers are at their same level. A lot of times at festival screenings the filmmakers are literally not at the same level as the audience because they are on a stage. At Cinema East, a lot of the filmmakers just sit on the grass and hang out in the audience.

CH: Another part of it is ‐ how hard is it to make a movie? And then getting people to see it is even harder. To be able to show your film to an extremely appreciative crowd is an amazing experience for filmmakers. We don’t want to deny a filmmaker of that experience. This summer we have been rearranging the schedule because we want the filmmakers to be able to attend, but that makes programming a challenge. We really want the filmmakers to see how much the audience loves their film. Our Q&A’s are some of the most open that I have ever seen. Maybe its because of the wine and beer, but our audiences ask some challenging questions. Like at Wuss last year, someone asked why the white guy was good and the black guy was bad; then it got on Facebook and turned into a whole Internet battle/discussion. But its great. There should be an open dialogue. Plus people can bombard the filmmakers at the after-parties…so it gets even more interesting.

ML: Yeah, I don’t want to say that our audience gets drunk, but they are out and having a good time; they will approach the filmmakers as if they are good friends.

Austin Movie Events This Week:

6/4 ‐ Alamo Village — Austin Film Festival presents “Duplass-a-thon” featuring Do-Deca Pentathlon and a Duplass Brothers short film showcase with director Jay Duplass in attendance. (More info)

6/5 ‐ Violet Crown Cinema — Criterion Presents: Arthouse Monthly screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). (More info)

6/5–6/6 ‐ Paramount Theatre — Dorothy Arzner double feature with 35mm prints of Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and The Bride Wore Red (1937). (More info)

6/5–6/7 ‐ Stateside at the Paramount — Sam Fuller double feature with Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). (More info)

6/6 ‐ Alamo Village — AFS’ Best of the Fests presents Wolf with filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith in attendance. (More info)

6/8 ‐ Stateside at the Paramount — Charlie Chaplin double feature Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). (More info)

6/8 ‐ Alamo Ritz — The Alamo’s Summer of 1982 series continues with Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (More info)

6/8–6/9 ‐ Alamo Ritz — The Late Show presents Donnie Darko (2001). (More info)

6/9 ‐ Stateside at the Paramount — Clueless (1995) with director Amy Heckerling in attendance plus a movie-themed Scavenger Hunt. (More info)