Brooklyn Raised: Rooftop Films & the Spirit of Brooklyn Summer

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A Rooftop Films screening at Coney Island (via Rooftop Films)

Growing up in Brooklyn is something I’ve always treasured.  I have so many great memories that define not only childhood but the spirit of Brooklyn summer – water balloon fights, games of tag, chasing the ice cream truck, block-parties, and perhaps most memorable was going to the movies with my family. To me, a good movie represents summer and my childhood, and embodies Brooklyn. And this hasn’t changed. Though I’ve now moved on to college, my summers back home are never complete without the occasional trip to the movies.

Two Saturdays ago, on a typical summer evening, I brought my family to see a movie, but this evening, we were not in a theater, blanketed by blackness or closed-in by four corner. This experience was unique because I was sitting amongst the rooftops of Gowanus surrounded by the Brooklyn summer night. We were there to watch Cutie and the Boxer, one of dozens of films screening this summer as a part of Rooftop Films’ Summer Series.

There is something refreshing about viewing a movie outdoors, and for that matter, being elevated on a rooftop. There is less solemnity than the usual movie theater experience and a stronger sense of a community – as if we were all coming together, in excitement, from the buzz of an upcoming film. Rooftop Films, created in the summer of 1997 by Mark Elijah Rosenberg, was simply a new way of gathering the community to watch films on rooftops instead of in a small theater. Today, Rooftop Films has expanded throughout the boroughs of New York City, and has become a great outlet for gathering communities of artists together to share their work.

I asked the program director of Rooftop Films, Dan Nuxoll, some questions about the Brooklyn-born series.

What sets Rooftop Films apart from other institutions that screen independent films?

I think that we set ourselves apart in a lot of ways. There are the very obvious differences — we screen all of our movies outdoors, including on rooftops, along waterways, in parks, and in other scenic locations; and we go for 17 weeks instead of for a week or two. Those two factors certainly distinguish us from a traditional fest. But over the years we have worked to make our screenings much more than merely a summer-long screening series that happens to take place in the open air. We try to make each of our events a singular and memorable experience, with unique enhancements to each night, elements entertain but that also change the way that the audience interacts with the films, the filmmakers, the subjects, their fellow audience members, and — perhaps most importantly — with their community and their environment.

Some of the things we do aren’t terribly different from a traditional festival: We bring in the filmmakers for Q&A’s, we have after parties, etc. But certain other elements modify the audience’s experience in a way that we think enhances their appreciation of the film. First of all, we have live music before every screening, and we often tie that music thematically to the film or even have musicians from the film performing. That alone changes the experience of our events into something looser and more open than going to a theater, and puts the audience in a frame of mind that is in line with the film even before the movie starts to play.

And many of our custom-fitted enhancements go well beyond merely setting the mood. There are too many examples to list here, but some of the things that we have done that were particularly memorable include: having Robert Greene’s documentary Fake It So Real — a film about small town semi-pro wrestlers — play on a screen placed above a full-sized wrestling ring and then having the Q&A break down into a full-fledged battle royal with the subjects of the film sparring in costume in the ring; having the Ushio Shinohara, the subject of Zach Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, perform a boxing painting in front of 500 audience members outdoors following the film; bringing together four Serbian-style brass bands to perform all at once for an audience of thousands prior to our screening of Brasslands, recreating the feel of the brass band festival that the film documents; screening Meredith Danluck’s 4-channel film North of South West of East outdoors with the audience sitting on swiveling chairs, surrounded on all sides by the film playing on giant screens; screening the delightfully quirky nautical doc Expedition to the End of the World in a barge off the coast of Brooklyn; following our screening of Reuben Atlas’ Brothers Hypnotic with an ecstatic outdoor performance by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.

I could go on and on, because this year nearly all of our screenings have featured some special enhancement like the ones I mention above. As much as we love showing movies outdoors, that is only one small part of what we do at this point. Our real goal is to create truly magical experiences, and to make those magic moments mean something — to add more levels of meaning and a richer appreciation of the film by making you feel like you were a part of something special just by being there.

It’s pretty cool when it all comes together, and the events can really take on a life of their own.

What is it about being on a rooftop that changes the screening experience vs. being in a traditional theatre?

I understand that some filmmakers or cineastes prefer to experience a film in an enclosed and controlled environment, and that is fine. I get that. I watch movies in theaters too. And if you hate the idea of hearing a plane fly overhead while you watch a film, then maybe Rooftop isn’t ever going to appeal to you (though I will note that we generally do try to control the atmosphere of our outdoor spaces and curate the films to the venues so that there isn’t anything too disruptive interfering with the viewing experience).

But for us, the outdoor element means that when you watch the film you don’t feel like you are leaving the world behind—you might be transported to a different place in time via the experience of the film, but you still are aware that you are part of this world, too. And sometimes this can add to one’s understanding of the film. When we screened Bending Steel — a documentary about strongmen that culminates with a powerful performance at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow — we screened it on the beach at Coney Island, amidst actual strongmen and actual sideshow performers and right beside the bizarre and anarchic energy of the Coney Boardwalk, where many scenes in the film were shot. When we screened David Lowery’s tragic western love story Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, we showed it on a farm in Queens, the audience surrounded by cows and crops.

And when the experience of watching a truly special film happens outdoors and the film and the audience interact with the architecture and the bustle of a living city, this also changes the way you think about the neighborhood, and — hopefully — about the community around you. If you watch a beautiful film about Chinese factory workers on top of a converted factory in your neighborhood, that building means something different to you afterwards.

Rooftop has become an excellent example of a prosperous Brooklyn-born arts institution. You’ve since expanded into all of the boroughs in New York and all over the country. How are some of the ways you’re staying connected in the Brooklyn community?

Well, the Brooklyn community is packed full of musicians, artists and filmmakers, so it isn’t hard to stay in touch with that portion of our borough. But your question is a good one. We go out of our way to pursue opportunities to screen in neighborhoods and venues that aren’t necessarily known for being full of cinephiles and industry types. The aforementioned Coney Island beach screenings certainly reach a widely diverse audience, and one that is not necessarily quite as inclined to pursue independent film screenings, so for those shows we program a mix of mainstream and independent movies and work hard to present them with films that they can appreciate but that also challenge their expectations a bit.

Further, we strive to reach out to neighborhoods that aren’t quite so inundated with cultural events. A good portion of downtown Brooklyn was long considered a hopeless cultural dead-zone, but we pursued funding from Forest City to do free screenings in Metrotech Commons and those events have energized that space in ways that some people thought wasn’t possible. Similarly, this year we began screening movies on the warehouse roofs of Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, an area that most New Yorkers probably couldn’t even find on a map. Those screenings have all been extremely well attended and they have introduced our audiences to new parts of the city while also bringing cultural events to a neighborhood that doesn’t experience very many of them.

We have always considered our mission to be as much about improving our city as about showing movies, so it comes pretty naturally. If our events don’t help to shape the city into a better place, then we aren’t doing our job.

Have the demographics of Rooftop Films’ audience been a determining factor of the films you screen?

Sometimes. But probably not in the way that you mean. Certainly, we have our “core” demographic, which could probably be described as young, well-educated, creative and culturally curious. A good portion of our audiences at certain venues fits that description, to be sure. But as I mentioned, we do program and help to produce a lot of events in neighborhoods that aren’t filled with people who fall into that category, and such venues give us opportunities to showcase different types of films. The film we will show for free in the South Bronx might not play as well on a roof in the Lower East Side, and vice versa. We actively seek out neighborhoods and venues that will both benefit from our events and will give us the chance to program different types of movies for different types of people. It is a challenge at times to find the right fit, but it is a fun part of the job, not a chore.

Further, it is worth noting that even our “core” demographic puts many fewer restrictions on our curation than the core demographic of a lot of other film organizations. Our core audience is culturally and experientially adventurous, so they want us to challenge them and they expect us to present to them films, venues, bands, subjects and experiences that they might not have discovered on their own. Sometimes we recognize that a certain film might not play particularly well in one given setting, but we can usually find a spot to showcase just about any film that we are excited about.

The one exception to that statement might be horror films. It is a little difficult to find outdoor spots where horror films will work well and not terrify the local children within earshot. But other than that, we feel pretty free and unrestricted.

What’s harder, the logistics and set-ups of the screenings, or finding the right types of films?

My first reaction to that question was, “that’s a no brainer: logistics are definitely harder.” But the more I thought about it the more I realized it wasn’t that simple. Every aspect of my job provides some pleasure and some pain. Negotiating with a sponsor can sometimes be delightful, and can sometimes be deeply frustrating. Working with the Alliance for Coney Island to figure out ways to stimulate the neighborhood can be a pleasurable and creative experience, but getting an architect to sign off on an assembly permit with one day to spare can feel like pure hell. And all these experiences can be rather satisfying when they are going well and pretty grueling after a prolonged period of stressful exhaustion. But most of the things I do have their creative aspects, so they are all fun when they are fun.

Programming is the same. You would think that I would always choose to watch a movie rather than figure out how to set up a 46-foot-wide inflatable screen, but after you watch a thousand movies in a three month period it can be a relief to go outside and get your hands dirty or sit down at a table and make a pitch to a potential funder. And as any overworked programmer will tell you, at a certain point watching films — even really good films — becomes a physically draining trial. I watched over 1,300 movies this year — the most I have ever had to watch for Rooftop — and the last 500 weren’t that easy to get through, I assure you. Anything to excess can only be so much fun. But that is how the job works, and I can’t complain.

I will say this, though — the last few years it has been especially easy for us to fill our slate with films that we truly love and that we know our audiences will appreciate. We get offered many more fantastic movies than we can possibly screen in one summer, and so the hard part is rejecting films that we know are very worthy of inclusion and that we wish we had room for. We aren’t nearly as concerned about premiere status as a lot of other fests and series, and now that we are pretty well regarded in the industry we have no shortage of options. Very often the final decisive factor that leads us to choose one film over another doesn’t have to do with which film is the “best” film: often the determining factor is that one film is more likely to become the focal point for a truly meaningful, unique, immersive, evening-long experience.

And, of course, we are always looking out for those undiscovered gems that haven’t yet found a festival home or that have largely been overlooked, and that is why we have to wade through the nearly three thousand films that come our way each year. It can be a chore at times, but there are worse ways to make a living.

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Kendra Williams
Kendra Williams
Kendra Williams was a summer Eastman Fellow at POV . She is a rising senior at Syracuse University where she studies Film and Public Communications. She enjoys photography, filmmaking, and sports. She grew up in Brooklyn, NY.