Hanging out in a cemetery is usually the purview of the bereaved, moody teenagers listening to Morrissey on their headphones, or characters in a Tim Burton movie. But when it comes to summertime in Los Angeles, there is one cemetery into which people are more metaphorically dying to get in. This particular cemetery, the incredibly named Hollywood Forever, attracts folks from all walks of life, bringing bottles of wine and picnic baskets in tow for one sole purpose: to watch movies under the stars. These are the Cinespia Cemetery Screenings and, in this writer’s humble opinion, they are the single greatest part of living in Los Angeles.
Outdoor screenings are by no means a new idea, particularly in Los Angeles, but there’s something about Cinespia that sets it apart. And no, it’s not just the fact that it takes place in a cemetery, though that certainly helps. Cinespia founder John Wyatt began the organization and the screening series back in 2002, after attending a birthday celebration for the late Italian silent film star Rudolph Valentino at the cemetery. After seeing the space’s potential, Wyatt approached the owners of the cemetery about showing films there, and on July 20, 2002, they held their inaugural screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, which attracted approximately 80 people. Now, with a staff of dozens, DJs spinning tunes before the show, themed photobooths, and a taco bar, Cinespia’s summertime screenings attract thousands of patrons per screening, including more than 100,000 over the 2014 season.
“Cinespia started as a film club, and that spirit is still very much part of what we do; we’re all about the movies,” Wyatt told me over e-mail. “When we started we wanted to bring classic films to a new audience by creating a community around our screenings. With a picnic on the lawn, DJs, a festive atmosphere and the night sky above, it changed the way people experience these movies. 15 years later that community is here. Turns out people like to get together with all their friends and watch movies on the big screen; who knew?”
One might feel a bit queasy about hanging out in a cemetery at night, given the macabre connotations of a space like that. However, such is not the case with Hollywood Forever, a cultural landmark resplendent with beautiful landscaping, tasteful memorials, and the final resting places of some of the men and women who helped make Hollywood an international cultural juggernaut, like Rudolph Valentino, Mel Blanc, Fay Wray, John Huston, Johnny Ramone, and many more. The screenings take place on the Fairbanks Lawn at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, named for the crypt of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. which sits adjacent to the lawn. Thankfully, there are no bodies buried beneath the Fairbanks Lawn, so you won’t have to feel icky about picnicking on top of hallowed ground.
“We show films in the middle of Hollywood, the place where they were created, surrounded by the final resting place of so many of the greats from the golden age,” Wyatt said of the Hollywood Forever space and what sets it apart from other outdoor screenings. “There’s no place quite like it on earth. But what really makes us unique is our audience. LA has the most creatives of any city on the globe, with so much of that savvy and intelligence focused on cinema. When you have a demographic like that en masse in front of a Hitchcock classic? It’s truly a unique and inspiring group. We love how much Cinespia fans love great movies.”
Indeed, fans come in droves to lounge on picnic blankets watching an eclectic mix of films under the stars. Wyatt and his colleagues curate a terrific mix of cult films, classic films, and fan favorite mainstream fare. For example, this year’s initial slate includes Singin’ in the Rain, Purple Rain, Raising Arizona, Goodfellas, The Sandlot, Sabrina, Kill Bill, and The Muppet Movie just to name a few. So how do Wyatt and his Cinespia cohorts approach programming each year’s
“We strive for a diverse calendar,” Wyatt explained. “Seeing a film you love with 4,000 people transforms it: you share a common experience, a connection, that is exhilarating. No amount of home movies, cable or video on demand will replace that experience. We have a primal need to get together to share these stories. Cinespia is more popular than ever, and the theater business is going strong, it’s proof positive of the lasting power of cinema.”
“We love discovery too, when a new generation gets to see the great films of the past,” Wyatt continued. “The titans of film-making like Welles, Capra or Hitchcock made films that still play great and feel fresh and modern. It opens up a world of what great art can be. We hope everyone gets as inspired by them as we do, [and] they’re always a lot of fun.”
Although each season manages to provide a diverse stable of cinematic treasures, there are still some titles that elude Cinespia’s grasp. In fact, there’s one cinematic franchise in particular that Wyatt has desperately wanted to screen at Hollywood Forever.
“Star Wars. The original trilogy,” Wyatt revealed. “In fifteen years they’ve never been available. A Cinespia screening of them would be such a celebration, under the stars, with everyone dressing up for our photobooth, a Star Wars inspired DJ set, a Jedi Order showcase perhaps. To celebrate the joy the films have brought to generations, would be a win-win for everyone. It’s very important that these films be shown on the big screen.”
Image: Paramount Pictures
What Cinespia lacks in the galaxy far, far away, it makes up for with another, arguably better annual tradition: showing the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Several years ago I caught Vertigo on the big screen there and it has remained one of my favorite cinematic experiences to date. This evening, Wyatt and his team continue that tradition by showing To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock’s 1955 romantic thriller starring Cary Grant as a retired cat burglar living on the French Riviera who is being framed for a series of high-stakes robberies. While trying to clear his name, he kindles a romance with a wealthy resident of the Riviera (Grace Kelly), who suspects the old cutpurse may be after more than her affections. It is, by all accounts, a classic film and one worthy of being screened for modern audiences. But how did Wyatt decide to show this particular film?
“Robin Wood, the great Marxist/feminist/Freudian/gay rights film critic famously said that the Hitchcock films of the 1950s were of a perfection not reached before or since by any director,” Wyatt said. “Hitchcock’s power as an auteur was at a level no-one else grasped. With all the powers of Hollywood at his command his vision could be fully realized and To Catch a Thief sits squarely in center of this string of pearls. It has the suspense and moral complexity of other Hitchcock films, but it also has a lightness, a touch of comedy which Cary Grant and Grace Kelly play to perfection. It also feels like a vacation, basking in the sunlight of the French Riviera with two gorgeous stars and a mystery. Who wouldn’t want to go on a vacation with Hitch?”
While more populist picks like The Sandlot or Grease may sell out their tickets faster, Wyatt believes that it is imperative to continue showing lesser-known and underappreciated titles as well. After al, discovery is part of the joy of cinema and many modern audiences may be discovering the works of Hitchcock through events like the Cemetery Screenings for the very first time.
“[Hitchcock’s] films are always fun–he can grab an audience and take them for a ride with such aplomb, craft and style,” Wyatt explained. “His little twists and turns play explosively to a big crowd, and his jokes always land. Always. It’s a pleasure to watch him work his magic on an audience 6 decades later and he’s still got it. He would have loved the idea of his films showing in a cemetery, and if his spirit is out there somewhere, he’s certainly chuckling to himself with glee at every scream and cheer.”
So what’s the secret to a great evening in the cemetery, watching a movie under the stars? “Planning a great picnic makes all the difference,” Wyatt said. “Delicious food themed to the movie, a great wine adds to the fun. But good friends will make the experience truly unforgettable.”
Good friends, good food, and good movies? Sounds like my kind of night.
For the complete Cinespia Cemetery Screening schedule, click here.
Image: Kelly Lee Barrett/Cinespia