Community Cinema unites Austinites under the silver screen

Andrea Tinning

Every Friday night, Austinites cozy up with blankets and gather ‘round as a huge projector screen lights up the outdoor theater in the outskirts of the city.

Partnered with Alamo Drafthouse, Community Cinema screens classic movies on the lawn of the Community First! Village amphitheater. They invite members of the Austin community to not only enjoy watching a free movie on the lawn, but to support formerly homeless members of the community.

“This place was born out of the idea of raising somebody off the street and getting them housing,” said Ed Travis, Community Cinema director.

The 27-acre Community First! Village is home to about 160 formerly homeless residents. Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the location’s parent organization, began when parishioners of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Austin started delivering meals to the homeless from a minivan. The project quickly expanded when Alan Graham, founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, decided to provide them with housing opportunities and created the Community First! Village.

Residents have the opportunity to make money by maintaining the amphitheater and other attractions around the village. Although Travis said he pays licensing for the movies screened at the Community Theater, the location is able to stay financially stable through food sales, donations and private event reservations. Travis intends to keep Friday screenings free for this purpose, since it gives residents the opportunity to earn an income through concessions and maintaining the space.

“Number one, we’re trying to create dignified income opportunities for residents,” Travis said. “Every time we have a movie night event, we’re hiring residents to work. The other goal is welcoming the public and bringing them out here to see what Mobile Loaves & Fishes is doing as a whole.”

According to Travis, another benefit of having free Friday screenings is that they welcome members of Austin into the community and help residents make connections.

Complete with a garden, animal livestock, community kitchens, a blacksmithing workshop and an artisan market, the village provides residents with several opportunities to grow their skill sets. Residents like glassblowing artist Earth Drum are able to showcase their talent whenever the venue hosts events.

“I was one of the chronically homeless a year ago,” Drum said. “My life is much better (now). Instead of running around trying to figure out where I’m going to stay each night I’m making connections with people and feeling really good about life.”

Since moving into the village, Drum said he has more opportunities to expand his area of expertise.

“I’m an artist and I get bored,” Drum said. “I make soap, ceramics and clay, glass and leather, and I work in the blacksmithing. I get to do all kinds of stuff.”

Last Friday, Austin resident Mollie Burpo attended a movie at the Community Cinema with her children, but she said the main attraction isn’t necessarily the venue, but the people who live there.

“(My children) actually love coming to visit one of the residents, whose name is J.R.,” Burpo said. Burpo said she regularly brings her children to the playground on the property near where J.R. lives.

“(He will) come out with those long popsicles that you cut and bring everyone a treat. They made him Christmas cards and he hung them in his house and they were really excited to come out and wish him a Merry Christmas.”

For Travis, seeing other people interact with residents is the reason he’s committed to free movies. Not only do the screenings provide income opportunity for residents, but they also unite Austinites with people who have not always felt like members of a community.

“Every Friday night it’s open for anyone in the public to come watch a movie and we’re doing it throughout the winter,” Travis said. “It’s going to be a year-round deal.”