It’s a warm night in late June, and a small crowd is gathering in Astoria resident Frank Zagottis’ triangular backyard off Newtown Road. Chairs are lined up in rows facing a fabric screen that hangs from the apartment’s back porch, and Tiki torches twinkle around the property. A chandelier suspended in the air by wires glows over the yard. The host greets old friends and strangers as they arrive, inviting them to sit in “first class, business or coach” (the different areas of seating in the backyard, including adirondack chairs for “first class” and white plastic ones in “coach”). Guests make trips to a snack table around the side of the building, scooping up popcorn for themselves or adding a treat to share.
It’s the premiere screening of The Newtown Road Backyard Film Festival’s 2016 season—which happens to be the 10th anniversary season for the festival—and the film for the night is the 1981 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Ordinary People.”
As the sky darkens, Zagottis, 53, turns on a projector balanced on an old green ladder. The 10-minute pre-show countdown that Zagottis made on Final Cut Pro adds a drive-in movie vibe. He stands in front of the screen and welcomes everyone to the screening.
“This is the way movies were meant to be seen,” he tells the small crowd, “in a communal setting, in the correct aspect ratio, and without a pause button.”
Years ago, one of the regulars at this homegrown movie festival created a “popcorn fund” from a recycled popcorn jar to help Zagottis pay for items like popcorn, ice and cups, and attendees are invited to donate a little something to the fund to help pay for these communal goods. Otherwise, it’s completely free to attend the movie; this is something Zagottis does for his community, without asking anything in return.
It all started when Zagottis went back to school to study film.
“I came back with a finished short film and one of my tenants had a projector, so I dropped a king-sized bed sheet, which was very small, over my porch so we could watch it,” he said.
When he told his dad, an Italian immigrant who used to be a tailor, that they watched the film on such a small screen, Zagottis’ father sewed together two bed sheets to make a larger screen. Zagottis thought, “Let’s show more films and call it a film festival.”
He chose his first film, “Cinema Paradiso,” about a small Italian village brought together by a movie theater, because “it epitomized what I felt films could do for communities and for people,” Zagottis said.
“I was trying to find a way to bring folks together and I thought that having a movie in the backyard could do that,” said Zagottis, who has lived on Newtown Road for 30 years.
During that showing of “Cinema Paradiso,” a police car drove past the backyard, backed up, and then rolled down the window. The police asked Zagottis what he was doing, and Zagottis said that he was showing a movie for anyone in the community who wanted to come.
“If you have any problems, give us a call and we’ll take care of it,” one of the officers told Zagottis.
Years later, in 2014, there was a series of hate crimes in which things were thrown at Zagottis’ home, which has a gay pride flag on display. Zagottis got to know the 114th Precinct as they worked with him to solve the issue.
That September, while Zagottis was showing “Chicago,” a squad car pulled up by the backyard, and Zagottis went over to ask if everything was okay, thinking there might be news about the incidents.
But there wasn’t any problem; instead, the police officers told him that they were on their break and wanted to watch the movie for a while.
Since the film festival’s first year, Zagottis has been making upgrades.
He grew tired of watching movies with a stitch going down people’s faces, so he ordered a large piece of fabric, and his father, now age 84, created a 12-by-9-foot movie screen. (During the opening reel, you’ll see a short film documenting his father sewing the screen with his old sewing machine.) Before every showing, Zagottis irons the screen on an old-fashioned ironing board, a process that takes about an hour.
Zagottis adds little touches to make his film festival more official: His friend who has an audio recording studio did the voiceover for the opening curtain sequence. Additionally, Zagottis hangs up a movie poster during each screening; he either orders a poster or prints it out on several sheets of paper that he pieces together.
He also created a Facebook group in 2008. At the time, it had 20 members; it now has 635 members … and counting.
“And that’s how it began to grow,” Zagottis said. “People began joining the group, and I began to get into it. I began to say, ‘Wow, I got a film festival going on—this is cool! I can actually come up with themes and stuff.’”
This year’s theme is Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances. Zagottis always tries to have a mixture of contemporary and classic films that “haven’t had their due diligence projected on a big screen in a long time,” he said. “For example, so many people have seen ‘Gone with the Wind’ over the years on TV, but how many people have had a chance to see it on the big screen? So that was one of the films I showed a couple of years ago.”
The most popular film ever? “The Godfather.” Thirty-five people can fit comfortably in Zagottis’ yard, and for this screening, there were 42 audience members in the yard as well as three people sitting on the curb.
When his dear friend Isabel Ruggero passed away in 2014 after a five-year battle with cancer, Zagottis dubbed his “movie theater” Cinema Isabel. For the entire 2014 season, Zagottis reserved the “VIP section”—the couch in the back where Ruggero used to sit—in her honor.
At the end of that 2014 season, Zagottis’ projector gave way.
“Somebody came up to me after the movie and said, ‘Let us chip in.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that,’ but he said to do a GoFundMe [crowdfunding campaign],” Zagottis said.
The response was overwhelming: in 12 weeks, Zagottis had raised $1,200 for the projector, HD Blu-ray player, cables and more.
“People were donating 50 bucks, 100 bucks, without even thinking,” Zagottis said. “Someone even apologized because they could only afford $20. I said, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re apologizing?’ It said something to me. I said, maybe there’s something to this that I’m not getting; to me it’s just showing movies,” he said, but to people who come, it’s something more.
“There are times when I start to get tired and say, you know, I think we’re done. And then there are times when I think, why? Just do it. You get a lot out of it. People enjoy it. Especially this year—more new people have come this season to each film than ever before.”
Sometimes it takes a new face to remind Zagottis why he started the festival in the first place.
“When a new person shows up and they go, ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe that you do this, this is amazing, this is awesome,’ I think it’s a wake-up call. It reminds you that it may be 10 years for you, but it’s brand new for someone else, and they go, ‘This is really awesome,’ and then you go, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot.’
“So I keep doing it. And I’ll keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore, or until something breaks down and I don’t have what I need. As long as I keep living here and I have a backyard.”
When Zagottis considered holding his film festival in a different location, one of his friends said, “You can’t take it out of your backyard, because that’s part of what makes it cool. You’ve got a chandelier hanging in your backyard, Frank. How off the wall is that?”
One year Zagottis had a sketch to redesign where to hang his projector, and someone said, “You’re getting rid of the ladder? You can’t get rid of the ladder. It’s rickety, and it’s cool because it’s part of the charm, because here you are with this ladder showing these great movies in your backyard. It just seems more homey.”
So Zagottis kept the ladder. It looks like some things will never change.
The rest of the season includes “Children of a Lesser God” on Aug. 20, “The In-Laws” on Aug. 27, “Heaven Can Wait” on Sept. 10, “Arthur” on Sept. 17, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Oct. 1. All dates are subject to change due to weather.
Join The Newtown Road Backyard Film Festival Facebook group, then send a direct message to Zagottis or check your “other” folder for a message from him, because all new members must contact Zagottis before being added to the group. Make sure to RSVP for the screenings you want to go to, because seating is limited.