History Takes Over the Summer Outdoor Movie Festivals

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The Bryant Park outdoor film festival. Credit to the author.

At exactly 5:00 pm last Monday, film and history lovers were permitted to enter New York City’s Bryant Park to claim patches of grass for that evening’s screening of Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn. The scene resembled the 1880s Oklahoma land rush. Thousands of people, families, couples and groups of friends, descended on the wide lawn just off Times Square.

The movie madhouse was routine on summer Mondays. The Bryant Park outdoor film festival in New York, jointly sponsored by HBO, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this summer. It has grown steadily over the years and now draws upwards of 10,000 people per night.

Some of the most successful summertime cultural events in the U.S. of the last twenty years have been the outdoor movie festivals, staged in the parks and meadows of hundreds of cities and small towns across the country.

The outdoor film festival formula is simple: provide people with good films in comfortable outdoor settings, preferably a park, and let men, women, couples and families bring blankets, fold up chairs and cushions to relax on while they watch a good film amid stands of large trees, the night sky filled with glittery stars looming over them and balmy summer breezes blowing through the meadows.

Cities and towns have found that it is not terribly costly. A large movie screen is not too expensive and can be used year after year, movie rentals are reasonable, and there is no cost for the setup of the crowds in parks. Everybody has a good time. These outdoor festivals have been particularly successful since the start of the Great Recession in 2008 because everybody is looking to save money and cringes at $9 and $10 movie tickets.

It costs absolutely nothing to see these films, usually held on weeknights when the sun goes down. Hundreds of thousands of people across America not only go to see the movies, but arrive several hours early and enjoy a picnic dinner on blankets that they bring with them.

What’s interesting, though, is that over the last few years, films about history have started to make up a higher and higher percentage of the movie lineups of these film festivals. That is really evident this summer at Bryant Park, right next to the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Every one of the Bryant Park films this summer is an either an historical or historic movie. The festival started on June 18 with a screening of Psycho, the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. It was followed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on June 25, The Wizard of Oz (July 2), On the Waterfront (July 9), Roman Holiday (last week), The Maltese Falcon (July 23) and Rebel Without a Cause (July 30), The Adventures of Robin Hood (Aug. 6), All about Eve (Aug. 13) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Aug. 20).

“I was with my wife in Switzerland twenty years ago and saw an outdoor film screening at the end of a pier on Lake Geneva. Right away, I thought we could do that at Bryant Park,” said Dan Biederman, executive director of the Bryant Park festival. “The festival has become a great movie showcase and, at the same time, a staple of the New York social scene. People get here at 5:00 pm and spend four hours having dinner and chatting with friends. Then they lounge on a blanker and see a great film.”

Biederman does not think that his film festival strives to present historic movies, but good ones. “Many of the great films are about history,” he said. “History gives you a good story and complex characters. The proof of that is that for the festival this year we selected our most popular films over twenty years and they were all history films.”

Ethan Lercher, director of public events at Bryant Park, added that “stories with historic elements can have long lives while resonating deeply in the psyche of individuals and society as a whole. Stories involving history can be made into wonderful films.”

The Bryant Park Festival is not alone. Right across the river, in Hoboken, NJ, the annual Movies Under the Stars series, set on a Hudson River Pier, featured Casablanca (June 20), Hugo (June 27), The Artist (July 18), The Help (July 25) and The Wizard of Oz (Aug. 24).

Across the country, dozens of other major cities are offering more and more history films in their outdoor parks summer film series. Some of the cities involved are Chicago, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, San Antonio, and Bethesda, Maryland.

In addition to the city-funded park series, there are dozens of other, smaller outdoor films series hosted by neighborhoods. There, large movie screens are set up on the roofs of tall urban buildings. Neighbors bring lawn chairs or blankets and sit on the rooftop to see the film. The added attraction is that, beyond the screen, you get a terrific view of the rest of the city with its dazzling lights.

On an even smaller scale, individuals are purchasing large screen home movie outdoor screen and sound systems (about $1,000 to $1,500 per system) and showing their own films to neighbors.

Why more history films now, though?

“People love history films. They always have. In our 2011 poll to pick movies for the outdoor festival, the number one choice was Breakfast at Tiffany’s. People like new films, but those same people love old films and films about the past, too,” said Gerri Fallo, cultural director of Hoboken and head of their outdoor summer film festival.

Fallo has been running film festivals for years. The Bryant Park festival inspired her to start one in Hoboken in the mid-1990s. Today she presents eleven or twelve movies each year and, for fun, adds in “sing alongs” for musicals such as Grease and Mamma Mia, plus documentaries like Fast Food Nation. Her films usually draw about a thousand people, but some have pulled 3,000. Every few years she shows On the Waterfront, the 1954 about the mob and labor unions and which was filmed in Hoboken. It is always a huge hit and draws a large crowd.

“Back in the 90s, I got a call from Budd Schulberg, who wrote the novel On the Waterfront. He offered to come over and give a talk before the film and convinced the city to stage the On the Waterfront play for several summers,” said Fallo.

Moviegoers enjoy the history films. Fran Moran, who lives in Hoboken, has been to numerous history movies in the park there over the last several years. “You see a movie twice when you see a history movie,” he said. “You look at the film for its quality but you also look at it for what it says about history and what it teaches you. I just saw Casablanca. The movie’s dialogue begs the U.S. to get into World War II at a time when we were waiting to see what happened with it. The movie also tells you a lot about the early years of the war.”

He also thinks that American see most history movies on television. “The chance then, to see it outdoors, on the big screen, the way people originally saw it in, say, 1948, is great fun. It’s a very different experience,” he said.

Others who go to the Hoboken outdoor festival add that the park is set up so that you watch the screen and, around it, the lighted skyline of Manhattan, a sensational sight. Around the country, people say the same thing about the chance to see a lighted cityscape in their community.

Needless to say, these festivals always have weather problems, but they are overcome. The festivals have web sites that alert moviegoers to cancellations due to rain or provide emergency weather phone numbers to be called. This summer a number of outdoor films encountered heat problems. Even at 9:00 pm, when the film started, temperatures were still in the '90s. Empty nights in the schedule are used to re-run cancelled films. The parks all have parking problems and some moviegoers have to walk distances from their car to the park. People are noisier than they should be. The sound systems might not work perfectly and people a great distance from the screen might have a hard time seeing the movie. The film print might not be a sharp as it ought to be.

All of the problems are counterbalanced by one big positive -- fun. Watching a two-hour movie outdoors on a large screen, following a picnic dinner, soda can in your hand, sitting a soft fold up beach chair is just plain good old summertime fun.

In New Jersey alone, there are outdoor movie festivals at Fort Lee (showing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Sting), Asbury Park, Sea Isle City and Newark.

The Walker Sculpture Gardens, in Minneapolis has a film lineup with history films such as Spellbound and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The West Coast outdoor summer movie festivals are led by the Cinema under the Stars in Mission Hills, in the San Diego area. That festival (they charge $15 per ticket) features historic blockbusters such as Casablanca, Key Largo, It Happened One Night, Touch of Evil, the Wizard of Oz, The Third Man and Strangers on a Train.

Why do these festivals work? Is it the free ticket, the picnics, the blankets, the family outing?

“Well, it is all of those things, but, really, it is that the outdoor film producers set it all up so that the movies are the focus of one big party and everybody loves a good party,” said Hoboken’s Fallo.

We’ll see more history films outdoors, too. Or as Bogey said at the end of Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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