Up on the roof: Rooftop Films brings the City into the movie experience


On any number of summer evenings in New York City, hundreds of people climb to a rooftop and watch a movie with the city as a backdrop. For 17 years, Rooftop Films has shown indie films in these breathtaking settings, tapping into viewers’ desires for unique experiences—and a sense of interconnectedness.

Going to a Rooftop Films movie isn’t just about seeing a picture outdoors, it’s an event. As crowds ascend to the roof, live music warms up the audience and allows them to take in their surroundings. The filmmaker usually introduces the movie and answers questions after the show. Post-screening, people converge for an after-party at a local bar, where they can talk about the movie, enjoy free drinks courtesy of a sponsor, and meet with the filmmaker. David Lowery, who has had two shorts and a feature screen at Rooftop, remembers the showing of his 2009 film Saint Nick as “one of the best screenings we had, and we played at festivals all over the world.” A last-minute scramble to get out of the rain impressed Lowery, as the audience trooped over to a new location while the organizers rushed to set up the site. “That night, because of the weather, you really felt the support, that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise.” He also praises the crowd Rooftop screenings draw. “It feels like everyone really wants to be there—it’s not a scene or a cool thing to do, everyone wants to see and support the film.”

At the outdoor screenings, the noise, light and weather of the city may temporarily make audience members rack-focus, diverting their attention to something else. But those moments strike Lowery as “magical,” and they are part of the appeal for others. “The film is interacting with the life of the city,” says Dan Nuxoll, Rooftop Films’ program director. “People go into a movie theatre, and they could be anywhere. But they come to a movie here, and maybe you do hear some kids shouting down the block or a police siren, or a plane flies overhead, and for a moment your eyes leave the screen and look at the moon or something beautiful. I think that’s something that the audience really appreciates in seeing our screenings, and that the filmmakers love as well, the kind of interplay between the film and the city. That’s what people are there for.”

That interplay is something that Rooftop Films tries to make work in its favor. Despite its moniker, Rooftop Films utilizes a number of types of outdoor locations. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery’s latest feature, will screen at Queens County Farm Museum, an apt location for the western. The documentary Expedition to the End of the World, which centers on a schooner’s voyage in remote Greenland, will play on a vessel docked in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Right now, the “big picture is making the events more enhanced, bigger, more exciting,” explains Mark Elijah Rosenberg, who started Rooftop back in 1997 by showing short movies on a rooftop in Manhattan and now serves as artistic director. “We want to make things a unique adventure every night, and the locations are a primary part of the appeal.”

While the organizers admit that ambient light and sound mean the quality will never be the same as in a movie theatre, the screening quality passes the test with the most discriminating of audiences—the filmmakers themselves. “We have a lot of filmmakers who come in and are actually surprised with the projection and the sound being as good as they are outdoors. That’s usually the reaction we get,” Nuxoll says. Lowery agrees. “When you see your own movie, you’re always extremely conscious about how it looks and how it sounds, and it can be a nerve-wracking experience if it’s not up to par,” he explains. “They care about that, and make it something the filmmakers don’t have to worry about.”

Rooftop Films has created not only a community of viewers, but filmmakers, thanks to their Filmmakers’ Fund that provides grants to projects. Currently, they allocate around $70,000 in cash and services a year. Because of the leaders’ emphasis on showing and funding short films, they often connect with a filmmaker before they get “big.” “Being part of a filmmaker’s entire career is something that is important to and I think unique to Rooftop,” Nuxoll observes. “It’s a means of perpetuating the independent film community, and not just being a place that shows a movie, but can actually help you from production to exhibition.” Rosenberg adds that “more than a lot of festivals, we really highlight short films within our summer series, and we work hard on programming our short films,” allowing Rooftop to “develop excellent relationships with filmmakers from a very early stage in their careers.”

One example is Oscar-nominated director Benh Zeitlin. His short film Egg played at Rooftop, and the organization funded another short, Glory at Sea. When he went to make his feature, the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, Rooftop helped him secure a production grant provided by Eastern Effects, which paid for all their lighting and grip equipment.

After having his work shown three times at Rooftop, Lowery received funding for post-production effects for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Sundance hit that was acquired by The Weinstein Company. He counts Rooftop’s programming support for his earlier projects as equally significant. After seeing Saint Nick at SXSW in 2009, “they were instantly some of the biggest supporters we had. They wrote an article about it, and asked if they could screen the film towards the end of summer as one of their closing events.” His producer, James Johnston, had previously received funding from Rooftop for a short film.

Joanna Arnow, whose documentary i hate myself :) will premiere on a Brooklyn rooftop in July, credits the series with opening up opportunities for theatrical distribution. Just as importantly, they encouraged her as an artist. “Dan [Nuxoll] has been so generous and supportive in this process,” Arnow says. “Because my documentary is very personal, it’s been tough for me to figure out how to publicly present it for the first time. I feel lucky to be working with a team that treats their filmmakers so well.” She has already had a short film about the Occupy Wall Street protests screen in Rooftop, and plans to apply for a Filmmakers’ Fund grant in the future.

For Nuxoll and Rosenberg, their knowledge of filmmakers’ early work makes them more confident that the grants will help realize high-quality films. “We’ve had a lot of success with many of the films we’ve given grants to, mostly because we know the filmmakers,” Nuxoll offers. “We’ve met them, we’ve seen all their previous work, and we’ve gotten to know them a bit. So I think we have a little bit of an edge in terms of giving out grants. We’re pretty confident when we give out a grant that they’re going to deliver.”

Rosenberg and Nuxoll are filmmakers themselves, but they don’t see this status as particularly affecting their programming outlook. “I feel like Rooftop impacts our filmmaking probably more than the other way around. You spend all your time with these fantastically creative people. It’s just this vast network of creative people that you’re surrounding yourself with and who are influencing you and helping you to grow artistically,” Nuxoll reflects. His current creative project came courtesy of his job. He is working on a documentary about a woman who scammed film festivals, including Rooftop. Rosenberg has plans to shoot a feature this fall, a “fiction film about an astronaut on a one-way mission to Mars,” he details. He also benefited from Rooftop’s unique position in the center of so much creativity. Many of the people who are working on his film he met through Rooftop.

Lowery sees the imprint of a filmmaker in the screenings themselves. The staff at Rooftop Films knows how to find audiences that care about independent films, and put them in an open, anticipatory mood. “When you watch a movie with an audience, you are participating in the film with them, and you pick up on the vibe in the room—which can be a wonderful or horrifying experience. They do their best to make sure that vibe in the room is as good as it could be from the beginning. There are going to be some people who may not like the film, but they’re going to stack the deck in your favor, by creating an entire evening that’s geared towards getting people excited and looking forward to it.”

As Rooftop Films has grown in profile, they’ve also become a valuable marketing stop for indies from distributors ranging from Zeitgeist to Weinstein. What started with a 2006 sneak preview of Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Zeitgeist’s 2008 documentary Trouble the Water has now grown into several screenings each year that function as sneak previews of indie films with distributors. This year’s better-known indie screenings include IFC Films’ Frances Ha, CBS Films’ The Kings of Summer, Radius-TWC’s Twenty Feet to Stardom and Weinstein’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Partnering with well-known indie distributors has helped raise the profile of Rooftop. “I think people like to be in the company of highly lauded films,” Nuxoll notes. “The last couple of years, it’s been much easier to get films of any level than ever before. We don’t have too many people turn us down anymore.”

He’s also quick to point out that their mission to support filmmakers of all levels hasn’t changed. Rooftop receives over 3,000 submissions from filmmakers a year, many with much lower profiles. “We always seek to balance all these things out. A screening like Frances Ha, where there is a celebrity component, is not taking the place of a film by a lesser-known filmmaker. The success and the publicity that we get from that screening helps that next screening that we do for that unknown filmmaker, to actually have five hundred people there as well. Everything that we’re doing is hopefully enabling another part of our organization in the process.”

Arnow, a first-time feature filmmaker, is one of those “unknowns.” She acknowledges her work is a “programming risk,” and describes herself as “grateful to Rooftop for taking a chance with an intensely uncomfortable documentary that breaks most rules of traditional filmmaking. Although lots of people love my film, some react passionately against it…they are definitely a series that goes out of their way to find new voices.”

Rooftop aims not only for distinct content, but diverse audiences. By making its screening locations mobile, Rooftop engages different groups of viewers. After a few years screening movies in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the organization now screens everywhere from the Bronx to Coney Island, and they’re also screening in other cities in the U.S. and Canada. “We’ve made a concerted effort to try and have older people, younger people, and people of all races and classes as well,” Nuxoll emphasizes. They can set up a screening in the Lower East Side or Park Slope, and the crowd will change accordingly. They also try to match the location to the movie, whether it’s choosing a location they feel will respond to the work, or because it mirrors locations in the film itself. A July screening of Newlyweeds, for example, will screen in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, just blocks from where the movie was shot.

Even as they try to engage different audiences, there’s definitely a demographic sweet spot for Rooftop. “The core of our audience is probably in their mid-20s and college-educated,” Nuxoll estimates, noting that even as he and Rosenberg have gotten older, the crowd has stayed the same age. Rosenberg describes Rooftop viewers as “people who are culturally aware,” an audience that includes cinephiles, but also those who just have general interest in culture. Lowery adds that “it’s a very valuable crowd for any filmmaker trying to get their film seen. Rooftop has managed to find all of the people who love and want to support new independent film, and get them all in one place. I know I’m going into an audience that’s excited to see something off the beaten path. Maybe not everyone will like the movie, but they trust what Rooftop is bringing to them, and they’ll still be back. That’s the type of audience you always want to show your films to.”

Attendance at movie theatres has been largely flat in the U.S. Could it be that eventually the only time people will go to theatres is if the experience is an event? Nuxoll thinks not, though he acknowledges that independents have to do more to hold onto their audience. “You never used to see filmmakers do Q&As for three screenings a night for a weekend in New York City. Now everybody does that. That’s a huge difference. Even major filmmakers will make six appearances in a weekend when a movie opens in New York City.”

Nuxoll also praises exhibitors like the Alamo Drafthouse, “where they’re doing a lot of special events, where there’s a food and drink component.” He sees other theatres taking the special events or extras offered by organizations like Drafthouse and Rooftop and tailoring them to their own needs. “I could see a brick-and-mortar theatre, when they have a new film coming in that lends itself to that kind of presentation, having a ticketed screening on their roof the Friday night opening, just to get that buzz around the film, and then it runs for another week indoors or something like that,” Rosenberg muses. “That seems to me totally something that theatres could do. But I hope they don’t. They would steal our thunder a little bit,” he laughs.

This summer, one of the special extras will be a performance by Darlene Love at the screening of Twenty Feet from Stardom, a documentary about backup singers. A selection of short films will feature interactive works from the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center and the CITE Game Innovation Lab. For another showing of eerie short films, a pianist will perform Philip Glass’ creepy “Dracula Suite.”

Rooftop’s screenings lend themselves naturally to buzz, one reason the screenings are popular as word-of-mouth events for indies with distribution. “If people go see something in a normal theatre, they’re not necessarily going to come into work on Monday and tell all their friends.” Rosenberg reasons. “But if they say, ‘I went to a movie, and the star and the director were there, and it was on this amazing roof,’ that’s a reaction they’ll talk about it, and their friends will go see it when it goes into the theatres.” By keeping to a simple mission encapsulated by Nuxoll, “an evening-long event that isn’t just a movie screening,” Rooftop has cultivated a community of adventurous moviegoers whose perspectives are pried open a bit when taken out of the theatre and into the city. “With Rooftop, it always feels like the best screening possible,” Lowery marvels.