Bethesda middle schoolers start outdoor movie-viewing business
For a fee, “On the Movies” brings projector, screen to your backyard
Gus Green and Leia Levine screened "Trolls World Tour" for Abigail Sharon, her husband and their two daughters. Sharon's family has booked the service again.
Photos from Gus Green
Rising eighth-graders Gus Green and Leia Levine were watching a Harry Potter movie marathon in June when they came up with their million-dollar idea: a traveling backyard movie business.
Gus’s mother bought him a screen and projector for his 13th birthday to watch movies and safely socialize with his friends during the pandemic, because it can easily be set up outside.
“We were watching movies together on it, and we figured that a lot of our friends would maybe want to do that,” Leia, who is also 13 years old, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat. “So we figured we could make a business out of it.”
The Westland Middle School students have expanded that idea into a flourishing venture, with “On the Movies” gigs booked nearly solid every night for the next two weeks. They typically do screenings at night, but invested in a shade tent to start earlier.
“My parents, especially, were getting pretty fed up with me being on the phone all the time and watching TV or reading books. I’m just shut up in my room all day,” Leia said about her quarantine schedule. “They thought that the idea was really interesting. And they said, ‘Give it a shot.’”
The pair, who are long-time friends, began publicizing their business in June. They made a flyer to post around their neighborhood and asked their parents to post it on the neighborhood listserv and their Facebook walls. The clients started rolling in.
Although the idea was in response to the shortage of entertainment options that comply with social distancing, the young entrepreneurs want to continue screening movies long after the pandemic subsides.
“This is not just a COVID thing,” Gus said. “We want to focus on getting this business to run, no matter the circumstances.”
They charge $75 for the set-up and use of the projector and 100-inch screen on weeknights. The cost is $125 on Fridays and Saturdays.
They also sell boxed candy and glow stick packages for $3 a person.
They are hired for children’s birthday celebrations and adult dinner parties, too.
Amy Reichert hired the teens to screen “Knives Out” at a recent outdoor dinner party for her and her friends. They found out about the business through a flyer hung up in her Bethesda neighborhood.
She said she considered hiring a professional company to screen a film months ago, but it was too expensive.
“I saw this, and it just seemed like a really fun idea, and something that I could do with neighbors and friends outside at a social distance,” she said. “Just really a fun event when we’re all so isolated and limited in possibilities these days.”
The experience, she said, was an inventive way to spend time with friends and family under COVID-19 limitations.
“It would be a really fun thing for grownups, or for kids,” she said. “Everybody’s looking for ways to be entertained that they feel comfortable doing right now, and this sort of hit the spot.”
The teens split the work of the budding business equally, trading off who will respond to emails and figuring out ways to increase their clientele.
“As a small business starting off, we really want to make sure that we’re staying on the top of people’s in-boxes,” Gus said. “In case someone missed us, we want to make sure that they have the opportunity to get us again.”
Their parents alternate driving them to gigs.
They are documenting all of their profits and expenses, and plan to purchase another screen and projector, which together cost more than $1,000, if the demand grows high enough.
Their parents lent them the money to purchase the movies they screen from Amazon, as well as the candy and glow sticks.
“… Our parents were really insistent that before we started anything, we made sure that we were going to be very organized,” Leia said. “We’re, like, keeping track of each and every thing that we buy, so that when the time comes that we have money, we can pay it back.”
Leia’s mom, Carin, has a background in entrepreneurship. She co-founded the Hitched bridal salon in D.C. and the Fonbooth start-up, which sells wall fixtures that hold cellphones.
Though they aren’t advertising it, Gus and Leia will donate 5% of their final income to The Innocence Project. The nonprofit uses DNA evidence to exonerate innocent people wrongly convicted of crimes and is trying to transform the criminal justice system as a whole.
“There are so many problems that we’re not going to be able to fix it all at once, but I think that this was a really good cause,” Gus said. “This is something I felt strongly about.”
Leia said they are lucky to not face the financial strain so many other families are facing during the health crisis.
“I really don’t need money,” she said. “It’s a cool thing and it’s a learning experience, but neither of us is supporting ourselves or our families. So there’s no reason not to help other people that need it.”
Abigail Sharon hired them to play the animated movie “Trolls World Tour” for her, her husband and her two daughters.
Her daughters look forward to going to sleepaway camp each year and were disappointed by its cancellation. This experience, she said, put smiles on their faces.
“Being outside and, like, getting entertainment and having candy felt like indulgence — like good, fun summer,” she said. “We had an activity, which is something we haven’t had in a really long time.”
Sharon, who works in the film industry, added that her family is especially devastated by the closure of movie theaters and the lack of permanent drive-in movie theaters in the area. “On the Movies” proved a heartening substitution, she said.
“They’re actually bringing joy to people, and right now, it’s not the most joyful time,” she said.
Impressed by the teens’ professionalism, Sharon has put her family down for another screening.
“Our little one has a birthday later this month,” she said. “We booked it already for her birthday, so we’re going to be repeat customers.”
Despite their early success, both Leia and Gus acknowledged how their ages may limit them.
“It’s definitely interesting to be at this in-between age where we’re trying to do stuff for ourselves but also, we can’t drive,” Leia said.
However, they added that the strength of their service speaks for itself.
“We’re trying to start a business, we’re trying to be entrepreneurs,” Gus said. “So we really have to show people that that’s what we’re about.”