Earlier this year, I watched the Kenyan film Rafiki (Kahiu, 2018) on the opening night of the Christie Pits Film Festival, an outdoor film festival that has been held in Toronto’s Christie Pits Park since 2011. The film was banned in Kenya because its story about two young lesbians was seen as a violation of Kenya’s laws against homosexuality. Despite the ban, the film made waves on the international film festival circuit, and eventually worked its way onto the programs of repertory cinemas and curators across North America and Europe. But while the film is a compelling story about forbidden love that resonates beyond its context, my strongest memories of the screening are not those portrayed on screen—at least, not entirely. I remember looking away from the large inflatable screen for a moment and bathed in the light of the projector I could see hundreds of queer people like me laying on the grass enraptured with the film. When the film’s two protagonists finally shared their first kiss on screen, this crowd of more than a thousand queer people and people of colour applauded and cheered loudly, the sounds of their voices echoing across the park.

This is, in many ways, what contemporary pop-up outdoor cinema is designed to do. It is designed to create opportunities in engage in public spaces in new ways and to create positive memories associated with being in that space. As Sarah Atkinson and Helen W. Kennedy note, these sorts of pop-up outdoor cinema events became popular in the 2010s within the broader context of what they term “live cinema,” or cinema events that foreground the co-presence of audience and (mediated) performance.1 These events emerged as both a response to the perceived privatisation of the movie-watching experience, but also to the limitations of purpose-built venues for entrepreneurs and cinephiles who wanted to construct an experience around watching a film. By organising film screenings outdoors, and in sites like parks not designed for movie watching, organisers could both centre the communal experience of watching a film and develop a cohesive site-specific event around the screening.

But while these efforts have increased and proliferated within the last decade, they are not without their historical antecedents. Itinerant showmen travelled the United States and Canada erected temporary structures to project cinema outdoors in urban spaces in late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the start of the First World War, airdomes—popular outdoor theatre venues in midtown spaces that usually specialized in vaudeville and live performance—began adding cinema to their programs. With the rise of the car culture in the 1920s, the desire to watch cinema outside manifested itself as a desire to watch cinema outside from within a car, and by 1935 the first drive-in cinema was patented in New Jersey. Drive-in cinema culture peaked in the 1970s and then declined in the 1980s as home video made it easier to watch cinema at home. By the early 2000s exhibitors began experimenting with outdoor cinema again, replicating the early success of the airdome by screening films in outdoor venues usually reserved for theatre, music, and other live performance. But with the invention of large inflatable screens, which grew in popularity in the late 2000s, outdoor cinema was no longer tied to purpose-built sites. Rather, like the itinerant showmen of early cinema history, cinema was able to be screened almost anywhere—from parks to piers, rooftops and parking lots.

Atkinson and Kennedy note democratic and egalitarian potential of these events and evoke a sort of utopian nostalgia for outdoor cinema and other live cinema events to re-centre the communal experience of watching a film as a form of placemaking and community-building. In the word-of-mouth promotion of these sorts of events, organisers often rely on anecdotes from past screenings that emphases the unique and magical convergences only possible when watching a film outdoors—from the time audiences at Christie Pits were treated to a meteor shower during a double-bill screening of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (Linklater, 1994 & 2004) to the time a subway train rumbled underneath the audience as Helen Hunt was running away from the tornado in Twister (de Bont, 1996). Moments like these suggest that the content of the films do matter, but often only in fragments and as part of the larger experience of watching film outdoors in public. Organisers of outdoor cinema events are attempting to enact a reclamation of public space that hinges on these unplanned convergences, which helps embed outdoor cinema within the rhythms of urban life.

Rooftop Cinema, Old American Can Factory, Gowanus, Brooklyn NY

These convergences suggest that a different set of norms operate for outdoor cinema exhibition, norms informed both by those of the contemporary indoor theatre and by the norms of public parks use. Outdoor cinema experiences are often more raucous than experiences in indoor theatres, with audience members taking photos, applauding, responding, and engaging with the film in ways more reminiscent of early cinema audiences than the quiet and attentive contemporary cinema audiences. The convergence of park norms with cinema norms does more than just turn a public park into a giant theatre—if that were the case, outdoor cinema would not have been nearly as popular in this last decade. It is the careful tension between cinema and park norms that create the conditions for outdoor cinema’s unique experiences and help explain its growing popularity.

Endnotes:

  1. Sarah Atkinson and Helen W. Kennedy, “Live Cinema Presents… Cultures, Economies, Aesthetics” in Live Cinema: Cultures, Economies, Aesthetics, edited by Sarah Atkinson and Helen W. Kennedy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018)

About The Author

Jonathan Petrychyn is a writer, curator, and organizer based in Toronto. He received his PhD in Communication and Culture from York University and Ryerson University in 2019.