America's Best Outdoor Movie Theaters

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Courtesy of Walker Arts Center

The hush that falls over those gathered at Hollywood Forever Cemetery isn't just a sign of respect for the dead. On select evenings, it signals that a blockbuster movie screening is beginning. The cemetery movie series is an unexpected-yet-perfect way to pay tribute to legends like Rudolph Valentino and John Huston. "You're literally a few feet from someone who has worked on these movies," says Cinespia series cofounder John Wyatt.

The hush that falls over those gathered at Hollywood Forever Cemetery isn't just a sign of respect for the dead. On select evenings, it signals that a blockbuster movie screening is beginning.

The cemetery movie series is an unexpected-yet-perfect way to pay tribute to legends like Rudolph Valentino and John Huston. "You're literally a few feet from someone who has worked on these movies," says Cinespia series cofounder John Wyatt.

Even as drive-ins have declined, a new breed of outdoor movie theaters has been expanding across the U.S., cropping up in cemeteries, parks, even on rooftops. It's become a modern summer ritual to head to an open-air theater and stake out a prime viewing spot before sunset - whether for a date night or girls' night. Often the appeal is less about the movie itself than about the chance to get together and enjoy a beautiful setting on a balmy evening.

"A huge majority of the audience is coming for the experience," says Ethan Lercher of the Bryant Park Corporation, which runs the free HBO Bryant Park film festival in New York City. "The whole idea is that you talk to your neighbors."

For serious movie buffs, an outdoor theater provides the rare opportunity to watch a classic on a big screen. Unlike cookie-cutter multiplexes, these theaters have a nostalgic allure that recalls the 1960s, when America's love affair with the movies was still a budding romance. "These outdoor screenings are reminiscent of the drive-ins that baby boomers grew up with," explains Tom Boss, who cofounded the Bay Area's Film Night. In Minneapolis, the Summer Music & Movies program travels back even further to the earliest days of the silver screen, presenting silent films with a live musical accompaniment.

But outdoor movie screenings aren't just about old-time Hollywood. They can be forward-looking and bring fresh life to city neighborhoods. The NoMa SummerScreen festival launched in 2008 as part of a development and revitalization initiative in D.C., complete with trendy barbecue and gelato trucks. Each season follows a theme, and 2011 will represents trains through films ranging from "Some Like It Hot" to "Slumdog Millionaire."

It just wouldn't be summer without the thrills of a Hollywood hit combined with the pleasure of soaking up the outdoors at one of these alfresco movie theaters.

America's Best Outdoor Movie Theaters

Each summer, about 25 to 30 films are projected on a mausoleum wall at this famously unusual Los Angeles  film-viewing venue, which also happens to be the resting place of dozens of silent-era stars, directors and crewmembers, from Rudolph Valentino to John Huston. Even partial movie sets have been brought to the cemetery. “We had the original cockpit from 'Airplane' and turned it into a photo booth last year,” recalls Cinespia co-founder John Wyatt.

Hitchcock films set in San Francisco, such as "The Birds" and "Vertigo," are natural favorites at this Bay Area movie series that continues well into September. Of the seven locations, Dolores Park is one of the most popular and within easy access to the Mission, Castro and Noe Valley neighborhoods.

The group behind Film Night got its start 20 years ago in Marin County, where it screens films that tend to be more family friendly. The San Francisco lineup mixes new releases with classics. “We always get a big crowd for 'Casablanca',” says co-founder Tom Boss.

Mother Nature created Red Rocks, an open-air cinema and outdoor concert hall within an 868-acre park of pines and prairie — and conveniently just 17 minutes from downtown Denver. Two 300-foot sandstone monoliths flank the seating area and create terrific acoustics.

On summer nights, the Denver Film Society puts on comedies such as "Ghostbusters," "The Princess Bride" and "The Hangover," with local Colorado bands warming up the crowd before the feature presentation ($10).

How democratic: Portlanders actually get to vote on the movies they want to see at this outdoor series on Fridays in July and August. ("Sixteen Candles," "The Muppets Take Manhattan" and "Jaws" were among the 2010 winners.)

Maybe that’s why more than 7,000 locals descend on this downtown brick square for a typical screening called Flicks on Bricks. With more than 40,000 square feet, there’s ample room, just be sure to bring a heavy blanket or folding chair — those bricks aren’t comfy seating for a 90-minute movie.

When it first began in the early 1990s, this festival aimed to keep workers in midtown New York after office hours and give others a reason to join them. “The whole idea was to re-create the park – to make it beautiful, to make it safe, to have programming.” says Ethan Lercher, director of events at the Bryant Park Corporation.

Thanks to HBO’s close relationship with Hollywood studios, the festival still uses the original 35mm reels to screen classics such as "The Manchurian Candidate," "Annie Hall" and "The Way We Were."

It’s hard to find a patch of grass without moviegoers on summer nights thanks to this ambitious program. More than 170 movies are screened within 120 community parks, including "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," which John Hughes filmed right in Chicago. A Lake Side Classics Series added in 2011 showcases golden oldies like "North by Northwest," "A Raisin in the Sun," and "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" at Belmont Harbor and the 63rd Street Beach.

The Arts in the Parks citywide program launched this series in March 2011, making use of Miami's 7,000-square-foot-wall of Frank Gehry’s concert hall, the New World Center. So far favorite screenings have included "Grease," "Moulin Rouge" and "North by Northwest." SoundScape alternates with the New World Symphony, which projects live simulcasts of its performances at the New World Center.

You’ll still want to bring your own picnic blanket, but helpings of kettle corn and popcorn are free when movies play at Penn’s Landing on Thursdays in July and August. Mainstream blockbusters like "Dream Girls," "The Blind Side," "Eat, Pray, Love" and "The King’s Speech" light up the main plaza, with Philadelphia’s waterfront as a backdrop. From tapas to dim sum, the nearby Old City neighborhood has plenty of spots for a preshow dinner.

Ever since 1973, Mondays in August have meant silent-movie screenings, such as "The Navigator," "The Strong Man" and "Robin Hood," enhanced by a live band. The nearby Walker Art Center, which runs the series along with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, usually ties the lineup to gallery exhibits. For example, beat-related films to correlate with a beatnik show.

The area north of Washington's Massachusetts Avenue has a realtor-approved nickname, NoMa, and is growing rapidly thanks to recent additions like this film festival, launched in 2008 and complete with on-site barbecue and gelato trucks. Each season follows a theme such as James Bond or Music in Pictures, which featured "No Direction Home," "Buena Vista Social Club" and "Ray." Summer 2011 brings a train series that ranges from "Some Like It Hot" to "Slumdog Millionaire." It was an inevitable choice. “Our site overlooks the rail yards, so there are trains going by during the movies,” says Rachel Davis, who works with the NoMa Business Improvement District.

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