From Midwestern parks to the rooftops of New York City, summertime means outdoor cinema. When the sun goes down, grab a blanket and a cold one, and enjoy one of the true pleasures of the season.
The 2008 summer blockbusters promise a healthy dose of nostalgia for movie junkies—from classic comic book favorites The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man to the return of Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the long-awaited Sex in the City.
While this season’s theatergoers are enjoying a taste of the familiar—albeit served up with a twist for freshness sake—a growing number of film fans will be forgoing the multiplexes to enjoy the classic American pastime of outdoor cinema. The twist here is that instead of the drive-ins of yore, a new generation of cinema al fresco is cropping up all over the U.S., fueled by DIY film enthusiasts and audiences everywhere looking for good old-fashioned, and affordable, entertainment.
A Slice of Americana
America’s love affair with open air movie-watching began in the 1930s when a Camden, New Jersey salesman named Richard Hollingshead mounted a Kodak projector on the hood of his car and aimed it at a sheet hung between two trees. He started charging admission, and thus was born the drive-in. By the late 1950s and early ‘60s, some 4,000 drive-ins were operating across the U.S. In the following decades, rising land values, daylight savings time, the VCR, cable and multiplexes all lead to the drive-in’s decline. Currently fewer than 500 remain nationwide.
The Drive-in Revisited
Today, thanks to increasingly affordable exhibition equipment, including DVD players and digital projectors, everyone from brew pubs to neighborhood groups, parks departments, art museums and film festivals in their off-season are rigging up outdoor screens and inviting the masses. There's even a movement afoot, called Guerrilla Cinema, that encourages film enthusiasts to take over underutilized urban spaces as makeshift (and sometimes illegal) outdoor theaters.
A handful of Web-based companies have emerged to provide equipment (looking for a 24-foot inflatable screen?) and even the films themselves, with inventories of cinema classics and cult favorites—two mainstays of outdoor cinema. Once forgotten works are seeing new life under the stars, and old favorites—even ones we’ve seen countless times, like The Wizard of Oz—are all the more delightful when you’re sprawled out on a blanket in the park.
Indies al Fresco
At the same time, some do-it-yourself outdoor cineastes are using the novelty of unlikely screening venues to draw audiences to new, more risk-taking work. Filmmaker Mark Elijah Rosenberg, founder of Brooklyn’s Rooftop Films, started his series back in 1997. Frustrated by the lack of venues for new short films, he set up a projector on the roof of his apartment building and hundreds of people showed up for a night of avant-garde cinema. While the event ultimately led to his eviction, Rosenberg went on to grow his project into one of the nation’s premiere venues for new work, particularly shorts.
Last year, Rooftop screened 38 evening programs, with 18 feature films and 150 shorts from 35 different countries—culled from over 2,500 submissions. From the beginning, Rosenberg has maintained that gathering people on rooftops provides them both literally and metaphorically with a new perspective—one that opens them up to works they might not seek out otherwise. Read more
Motor Vu Drive-In, near Parma, ID
Intermission at the drive-in (1960) Watch video
Rooftop Films, Brooklyn
Photo: Sarah Palmer, Rooftop Films
Cinema al Fresco
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