- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Imagine a starry summer night in August with the grass between your toes, surrounded by friends, neighbors and thousands of strangers — and with any luck, fireflies.

You’ve polished off the barbecue, the hot dogs, the ice cream. The baby’s asleep and the pre-teens are plugged in on the blanket. In the distance the traffic hums.

And here, coming at you from a 64-foot-high screen in the meadow, is King Kong — Peter Jackson’s epically remade Kong of course, but still four stories tall and menacing enough to wipe the smile off your face and the grass stains from your feet.

That’s the sort of moment awaiting the folks who’ll lounge on the lawn between Strathmore Mansion and the headquarters of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Bethesda on Aug. 11, when the Comcast Outdoor Film Festival opens its 10th year of movies under the stars.

They’re part of a trend toward picnic-style summertime outdoor movies that has grown significantly in the past 10 years, to some extent because of its social component.

“The best part, the very best part of this experience is the socializing, is being with people, is being with your family,” says Randy Schools, president and CEO of the National Institutes of Health Recreation and Welfare Foundation. Mr. Schools helps organize the Comcast series, which benefits NIH children’s charities.

“It’s a whole different way of looking at and enjoying movies,” he says. “It’s not just the fact that it’s free, although it sure doesn’t hurt. It’s the experience itself — the outdoors, the setting, the people. It’s not at all like a theater.”

Splendor in the Grass

The Washington area, lush with federal lawns and institutional greens, abounds in this kind of alfresco party.

Opening the season in June were the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs series on an Astroturfed corner of Silver Spring at Fenton Avenue and Ellsworth Drive and Cox Communications’ Movies Under the Moon in Van Dyck Park in Fairfax City.

Up next week is Movies under the Stars in Shirlington and George Washington University’s Films on the Vern, which will use the verdant quad of its Mount Vernon campus for its series Around The World in Seven Films, movies with an international flavor.

Then come the HBO-sponsored Screen on the Green, screening crowd-pleasing classic movies on the Mall, Comcast’s Alexandria film festival in Ben Brenman Park, the WB 50 Outdoor Film Fest in Silver Spring, the Comcast Bethesda festival and, wrapping things up in September, a final Comcast festival at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va.

The variety of venues here mirrors the trend across the country, from New York’s Bryant Park — whose film festival behind the New York Public Library sometimes draws rock-concert-sized crowds — to a Hollywood cemetery or a 10-foot screen thrown up in an alley or parking lot.

In Baltimore’s Little Italy, the neighbors pull up folding chairs to watch movies projected on the wall of a restaurant.

Some series are pitched to the family trade, some to quirky, independent audiences, some to film buffs who savor the classics like “Casablanca.”

But almost everywhere, the movies are last year’s or older. They’re almost always free. And always, they’re outside, when it’s dark. The fireflies are lagniappe.

School of Rock

What’s the attraction?

“Outdoor movies are a lot like live entertainment — think of it as a rock concert,” says Bob Deutsch, president of Outdoor Movies Inc. of Rockville, a company that specializes in outdoor movie production services and runs several of this area’s outdoor screenings, including the AFI’s Silverdocs and the Comcast festivals.

He points to the Silverdocs screening last month of “The Last Waltz,” Martin Scorcese’s acclaimed documentary on the last concert of the Band.

“It was a little like being at a rock concert while watching a movie about a rock band,” he says.

For Mr. Schools of NIH, who brings his family every year, the Comcast festivals have been like a gathering of the generic family of man.

“People get married here, they have birthday parties, anniversaries and reunions,” he says. “People who live in the area come here every year. Heck, there are some people that call up for the schedule and they fly in from out West or New York, just for this,” he says.

“People come early, they lay out the blankets or the beach chairs, the kids run in the grass, you load up on the food available for sale, including ice cream, you relax. It’s a gathering of people, you can hear it all around you. There’s the movie, then, and afterwards, honest, people hang out and talk about the movie, the experience, they don’t just rush out for the cars or the Metro station.”

The Last Drive-In

There’s more to it, of course. Mr. Deutsch traces the festivals’ popularity to a longing for an old institution, the drive-in, and to the atomizing nature of today’s multiplex.

“Everybody has their theories and reasons,” Mr. Deutsch says. “Me, I think part of it is a real nostalgia for the drive-in movie theater. Drive-ins had practically disappeared and a lot of people miss the experience,” he says.

Mr. Schools says he has seen Comcast festival goers who mistook the picnic-style screening for the old car-centered version of the outdoor movie.

“One time, there was a woman who really did think it was a drive-in and drove up in her car,” he says.

The “togetherness” factor makes a difference, too.

“I think part of it also has to do with the going-to-the-movies mall experience today, which actually separates people,” Mr. Deutsch says. “You go to the local multiplex, say, with the family, and mom and dad head off to a movie for grown-ups, the girls go to a comedy, maybe, and the boys head off to an action flick.

“Plus, the theaters are small, the screens aren’t really huge, and it feels constricted, even if you’re watching ‘King Kong.’ Outdoor movies, in fact, are perfect for ‘big’ movies like ‘Jaws,’ ‘King Kong’ and ‘Jurassic Park.’ ”

Add the “free” factor.

“Things add up in a regular theater,” Mr. Deutsch says. “Tickets are 10 bucks, and then there’s the soda and the hot dogs. If you bring the whole family, going to a movie becomes an investment.”

(Mostly) Blue Skies

Mr. Deutsch, who started Outdoor Movies in 1998, takes much of the credit for the Comcast festivals, having come up with the idea of an outdoor film screening more than a decade ago when he worked as a marketing director at Clear Channel Communications.

“It was enormously successful,” he says of the first Comcast-NIH event. “We started out with 1,500 people coming, and now sometimes we get 10,000.”

The only real drawback to outdoor movies is, of course, the weather. Mr. Schools of NIH remembers only one rainout, perhaps for Hitchcock’s “The Birds” a few years back.

But Cox Communications’ fourth annual Movies Under the Moon wasn’t so lucky this year. After a successful showing of the popular full-length cartoon “Madagascar” on the 40-by-20-foot screen in Van Dyck Park, the remaining three screenings were washed out during the recent downpours.

Still, 3,000 people showed up for the “Madagascar” screening, and concession sales raised $18,000 for Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children.

The Green Pastures

Of the many upcoming series, one of the better known — largely because of its location on the Mall — is Screen on the Green. Produced by HBO, the series kicked off seven years ago with “Casablanca,” the ultimate and enduringly popular classic.

Washington’s Screen on the Green is not unique: HBO started with the Bryant Park festival 11 years ago, then branched out with festivals in Washington, Atlanta and Boston.

But it is a huge draw. With the Turner Classic Movies library as a source, the annual series attracts Mall visitors, tourists and classic movie fans to a giant screen in the meadow by the Washington Monument, on what is called the nation’s front lawn.

The National Park Service, which issues permits for the event, by policy will not give out crowd estimates. But it’s safe to say attendance runs into at least four figures, probably more.

This year’s opener, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the 1951 war-of-the-worlds sci-fi classic, may offer audiences a case of double vision. In one scene a giant robot walks off a spaceship in front of — the Washington Monument.

Around the World

While many of the outdoor movie events in Washington offer an eclectic mix of classics, family movies or recent box office hits like “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” or “Walk the Line,” the Films on the Vern series on the Mount Vernon campus of George Washington University, now in its third year, tries the theme approach.

Chad Southerland, graduate programming assistant at Mount Vernon Campus Life, says it started out with a political series, with films like “Being There,” “Dave” and “My Fellow Americans.”

Last year, the series turned to myths, stories and legends, and featured “The Wizard of Oz” and “Finding Neverland.”

This year, Films on the Vern is like a outdoor art house festival. It’s theme is “Around the World in Seven Movies,” with movies from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America as well as Antarctica — the ever popular “March of the Penguins.”

The smallish series, held on the quad of the Mount Vernon campus, has a distinctly neighborhood feel.

“We get about 100, 200 people,” Mr. Southerland says. “Mostly they’re students, but also people from the surrounding area in Foxhall and Palisades.”

That’s Entertainment

So what can people look forward to when they head for an outdoor movie event in the coming weeks?

“Madagascar,” the animated film about zoo animals trying to return to their roots in the wild, is a cornerstone of this year’s offerings, playing at the Comcast festival at NIH and in Alexandria, and at the Movies Under the Stars in Shirlington. Maybe it’s the lemurs.

This summer, Steve McQueen drives his hot Mustang in “Bullitt,” Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire dance in “The Band Wagon,” and Rocky Balboa cries out for Adrian, while Lauren Bacall teaches Bogey how to whistle in “To Have and Have Not.”

This year, Brangelina square off with guns and lips in “Mr. And Mrs. Smith,” and you’ll be able to spot which guy thumping coconuts together is King Arthur in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Sam Spade will kiss Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Gutman will frown and the gunsel will act tough in “The Maltese Falcon,” and Kiera Knightley will be absolutely stunning in “Pride and Prejudice.”

In the end, it’s about how we see movies.

And on Aug. 11, on a summer night on a green lawn with big and little kids and blankets all around, and maybe fireflies in the dark, there on the big screen over four stories tall and in Dolby sound will be Naomi Watts, her big blue eyes getting bigger as she sees Kong roar.

Playing on a screen near you

Call it a Hollywood picnic, a beach party with ants or a family reunion — but whatever you call it, try an outdoor movie. Here’s a schedule.

• Movies under the Stars: The Village at Shirlington, 28th Street South, Arlington. 8:45-11 p.m. Wednesdays. 703/413-6691 or www.villageatshirlington .com/events.php

July 12: “Madagascar”

July 19: “Walk the Line”

July 26: “Fever Pitch”

Aug. 2: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

• Films on the Vern: George Washington University Mount Vernon Campus Quad, 2100 Foxhall Road NW. 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays. The Vern Express, a free shuttle service from GWU in Foggy Bottom at 23rd and H streets to The Mount Vernon Quad, is available. 202/242-6673 or gwired.gwu.edu/mvcl

July 12: “Pride and Prejudice” (Europe)

July 19: “Central Station” (South America)

July 26: “Spirited Away” (Asia)

Aug. 1: “March of the Penguins” (Antarctica)

Aug. 9: “Whale Rider” (Australia)

Aug. 16: “Emmanuel’s Gift” (Africa)

Aug. 23: “American Dreamz” (North America)

• Screen on the Green: On the Mall between Fourth and Seventh streets. Dusk on Mondays. 202/619-7222 or dc.about.com/od/specialevents/a/Screengreen.htm

July 17: “The Day The Earth Stood Still”

July 24: “The Band Wagon”

July 31: “Bullitt”

Aug. 7: “To Have and Have Not”

Aug. 14: “Rocky”

• Comcast Outdoor Film Festival, Alexandria: Ben Brenman Park, 5000 Duke St., Alexandria. 8:30 p.m. 703/838-4844 or dc.about.com/od/filmfestivals/a/ComcastAlex.htm

July 28: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

July 29: “Madagascar”

July 30: “Cheaper by the Dozen”

• The WB 50/Silver Spring Outdoor Film Fest: Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, Silver Spring. Dusk.

8/24: “Hitch”

8/25: “Shark Tale”

8/26: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

• Comcast Outdoor Film Festival, Bethesda: 10701 Rockville Pike. On the grounds of Strathmore Hall and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, adjacent to the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro Station. Grounds open 6:30 p.m. Films begin at 8:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donation is suggested. 301/816-6958 or filmfestnih.org

Aug. 11: “King Kong” (2005)

Aug. 12: “Madagascar”

Aug. 13: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”

Aug. 14: “Curious George”

Aug. 15: “The Maltese Falcon”

Aug. 16: “Batman Begins”

Aug. 17: “Walk the Line”

Aug. 18: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

Aug. 19: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Aug. 20: “The Princess Bride”

• Comcast Outdoor Film Festival, Woodbridge: G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, 7 County Complex Court, Woodbridge. Dusk.

Sept. 29: “Madagascar”

Sept. 30: “ET”

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