When 11,000 New Yorkers gathered in Manhattan’s Bryant Park on Monday night to watch E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial under the not-really-visible stars, they were part of a larger trend that involves thousands of people who weren’t anywhere near New York.
The screening was the final event of this season’s Summer Film Festival, held on a rectangle of green situated behind the main building of the public library. The free open-to-anyone festival is now entering its third decade of showing a classic movie every Monday summer evening —and the E.T. screening was one of the top five most-attended in its 21 years of history (Rear Window in 2001 and Casablanca in 2007 each drew about 12,000 moviegoers; last year’s The Wizard of Oz and Raiders of the Lost Ark were also around 11,000). When the lawn is covered in a patchwork of picnic blankets belonging to locals and tourists alike, it’s easy to think that Bryant Park must be the epicenter of all outdoor moviegoing. But while the location remains central to the urban outdoor screening trend, cinephiles across the country have more access than ever to drive-in-type experiences that don’t require a car.
In fact, if you live in a city, there’s probably a free, outdoor summer movie festival winding down within walking distance—something that, just a decade ago, would have been very unlikely. (And, one decade before that, unheard of.) According to Biederman, looks don’t deceive: it all started right here in Bryant Park.
“We’re the biggest and the first,” says Dan Biederman, executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation, the organization that operates the park. “We’re incredibly proud that there are probably 500 of these [festivals] in the country, but we were the first.”
Biederman is, in a way, personally responsible for the trend, which has now spread both throughout New York City (movies can be watched in parks and on piers all over the boroughs) and the United States (Seattle, Austin, Miami, just to name a few).
In the early 1990s, Biederman traveled with his wife, who works as a fine-arts lawyer and was in Europe for business, to Lake Geneva, when he first saw the sign that created a craze. “There’s a jetty that goes out into the lake, and there was a sign up and I don’t read a word of French but I said to my wife, ‘Tell me what that says, my dear.’ My wife said, ‘It’s very confusing but I think it says there’s a film series here,'” Biederman recalls. “I said ‘You’re kidding, I’ve never of anything like that. When?’” His wife couldn’t tell from the sign, but the concept stuck with him. When he came back to the U.S., he went to Michael Fuchs at HBO, which was already supporting the renovation of the once-seedy green space, and suggested they replicate that idea in Bryant Park: Biederman pitched it as “a drive-in movie without cars” and the rest was history.
Well, almost: they were unable to come up with a model to follow, so everything had to be done from scratch. Where would the projector go? How would the big screen work? Which prints would be available? But, by the time the kinks were worked out, it was a bona fide hit. The event, which still bears the HBO brand but is now sponsored by a variety of companies, makes more than $600,000 a year, according to Biederman. And, whereas one or two outdoor screening series popped up each year in the early ’90s, Biederman says that growth of events inspired by the Bryant Park series has been massive in the last decade.
The success of urban, outdoor movie screenings isn’t just a commentary on Bryant Park’s success. While the apex of the drive-in coincided with post-WWII car culture in the United States, the growth of the walk-in movie coincides with the growth of cities (now growing faster than suburbs), the decline of car ownership (especially among young people), and increased safety in many urban areas (making it not so scary to sit on the ground in a park after nightfall).
But that’s not to say that none of the reasons for the trend’s growth are shared with drive-ins, Biederman points out. After all, when it comes to watching a great movie on a warm summer night, some things never change. “We pick movies [viewers] are intrigued about seeing,” he says, “good date movies.”