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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

The Street Gets Star Treatment

Outdoor movies have become the hook to draw people to tired business districts and public spaces. The reviews have been good.

October 16, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Who holds a neighborhood mixer after dark in a vacant lot in the Lower Fillmore? Junkies were staggering around on the street. A cold wind was toppling trash cans and rattling the movie screen some optimist had hung on the side of an apartment building. And yet, against all conventional wisdom, a crowd was gathering.

Here they came in thick sweaters and leather jackets, with wine and lawn chairs and homemade popcorn in brown bags. Some came out of curiosity. Some came with their children. Greg M -- "just M, I got the driver's license to prove it" -- came by accident as the opening credits flashed on "When We Were Kings," the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman documentary that the city redevelopment agency had hoped would bring someone, anyone, to this blighted corner.

So intrigued was he by the sudden spectacle that he called his wife on his cellular phone.

"Hey, baby, they got a party going on down here on the street. You got to come on down here," he said with a chuckle as about 75 people whooped and cheered in the late-September night the way people rarely do anymore at the movies. "Down! Goes! Frazier!" barked the on-screen voice of Howard Cosell as 75 pairs of cold hands applauded. Next to a space heater, a grizzled man in a wool cap hollered, "Yessir! Good Lord!"

Welcome to the latest in urban renewal -- outdoor movies. Fueled by nostalgia, redevelopment grants and advances in technology, alfresco movie screenings have, in a scant couple of years, quietly become a summer -- and spring and autumn -- fad from Walla Walla, Wash., to Washington, D.C.

"They're the contemporary iteration of the drive-in," said Bob Deutsch, whose outdoor movie business has more than tripled in the three years since he launched it. Deutsch, based in suburban Washington, D.C., said he set up outdoor movie series in 14 communities in the mid- Atlantic region this summer. He recently launched a sideline selling screens for outdoor viewing.

"The growth rate," he said, "has been phenomenal."

In Burbank, for example, a shopping center's need for midweek foot traffic burgeoned this year into a summer film series that drew 3,500 people a night to the side of an IKEA building -- and into the mall -- and prompted inquiries from communities as far away as Henderson, Nev., and as nearby as Irvine.

Two years ago in Baker City, Ore., a desire to bring locals back to a historic but neglected downtown resulted in a summer festival centered on a singalong screening, in the middle of Main Street, of "Paint Your Wagon," which was filmed there. "Small-town historical events can have a hard time," said Beverly Calder, a board member of the Historic Baker City Inc. economic improvement district. "But a bad musical with Clint Eastwood? That's something different."

L.A.'s Chinatown showed Jackie Chan movies outdoors this summer in an attempt to generate buzz. Universal CityWalk offered a free "Summer Drive-In Movie" series near the Hard Rock Cafe there. A James Bond film series screened in a commercial courtyard in Pasadena's Old Town. In Colorado, so many cities have outdoor film series that one event producer, a former dot-commer, has launched the Outdoor Cinema Network, a Web site (www.outdoorcinema.com) to help them market themselves.

In San Jose, meanwhile, a bootleg outdoor movie night inaugurated by bored bar patrons in the late 1990s has blossomed into two outdoor cinema programs subsidized by downtown revitalization money. The programs have, in turn, inspired the developer of a new high- end commercial and residential project, Santana Row, to build outdoor movies into the infrastructure of the district's shopping strip, a move that merchants say has bumped business up by 25% or more on film nights.

Now, with three venues where moviegoers can gather in lawn chairs and on blankets on warm nights, officials are considering a fourth modified cinema under the stars for San Jose's new City Hall, which is scheduled for completion in 2005 and which will feature a large plaza and glass-domed rotunda.

Lynn Rogers, arts program officer for the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs, says the aim is to give citizens a sense of ownership of their public spaces.

"It's a great way," she said, "for people in a community to commune."

The rise in urban movies by moonlight came just as suburban drive-ins were being declared extinct. In 1958, more than 4,000 drive-ins dotted the United States, but the cable and video revolution had put all but a few hundred out of business by about 1985.

In the '90s, city planners and others became intrigued with the idea of open-air movies as a way to bring crowds back to neglected downtowns, but most had imagined such events to be too costly. The massive screens required thousands of dollars' worth of rented scaffolding; the special projectors and speakers called for extra security and insurance; and some theater owners feared that the competition might cannibalize the box office at the local art house.

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