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Why An Outdoor Movie Screening Is The Ultimate Canadian Summertime Experience

photo credit / TO picture show

Forget the over-air-conditioned theatres, this summer, make sure you see at least one movie outside—in a city park, at a classic drive-in, or even in your own backyard (digital projectors are cheap!). There’s a certain magic to watching a movie under the stars with a bunch of friends and strangers which is why outdoor summer film programs are taking off and multiplying. We talked to founder and Artistic & Executive Director Emily Reid of the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (which now has an audience of 13,000 attending screenings in four parks across the city) to find out why a screening under the stars should be on everyone’s summer schedule.

What makes watching a movie outside such a special experience?

I think there are so many ways that we can have a profound film-watching experience, and this is one of them. While there are certainly disruptions in an outdoor setting  the subway rumbling underneath, the couple cuddling romantically in front of you, sirens rushing by—I think all those elements enrich the experience and make it unique. Maybe the expectation is lower for some than seeing a film in cinema—they set out for a casual night in the park—and then people feel overwhelmed when their emotions are heightened by the unique space, great company, and a beautiful film. One year a mother told us that she took her eight-year-old son to see Rear Window at Christie Pits Film Festival and he fell so deeply in love with the experience and the film that he insisted on seeing the entire Hitchcock canon—a child after my own heart! That’s the kind of cinephilia that we hope we can foster in a welcoming and accessible space.

 

Have you been to outdoor screenings in other cities? Can you tell us about those experiences?

Over a decade ago, before I moved to Toronto, I took a big trip to Europe—a chance to see the world, and as it turned out, a chance to really get to know myself, too. One beautiful May evening in Athens, I saw a poster for an outdoor screening of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet’s final film). I had been travelling for months (pre-smartphone era), and for the first time in my cinephile life, was pretty out of touch with cinema that year, so I hadn’t even heard of it. But I took a chance that this would be a strange and fantastic experience—a crime drama by an American auteur featuring two of my favourite living actors (Ethan Hawke and Seymour Hoffman), on a rooftop in the shadow of the ancient Parthenon. It was fantastic—and certainly strange, sitting there with an audience of six other people—and I don’t think I realized until years later that it proved to be the inspiration of my urban outdoor cinema.

 

How do you program for an outdoor summer festival? What kinds of movies go best with that setting?

When I started our festival, I focused on nostalgic classics. Films that would evoke a special memory when watched lying on a hill, your toes in the grass. Coming of age films are effective: A League of Their Own, Rebel Without A Cause, Moonrise Kingdom, all fantastic crowd-pleasers.

At a certain point, though, a few years into our history, we began to take bigger risks with our programming. With a dedicated audience (that’s a key first stage!), we started to add some experimental films within our shorts selection, some foreign language films, and some live-score productions (those are a real feat!). And we found that our audiences trust us, and selections like the Turkish film Mustang and Speed Sisters from Palestine were met with just as much enthusiasm as established classics and popular films like The Birds or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. We also found that we don’t have to stick to the fluffy stuff at all. As long as we strike a careful balance with some big crowd-pleasers, there will be an audience for Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, and that diversity among our selections is core to our identity as a festival.

photo credit / unsplash

What makes the Christie Pits Film Festival and the TO Picture Show special?

I think that our programming is unique because we curate our outdoor picture show as if it were a rep cinema. Most (not all) outdoor screenings are put on by organizations or businesses as a fun sidebar project to what keeps them busy year round. While those may have entertaining selections, films are often chosen a bit off the cuff. For us, outdoor film programming is what we do — it’s what I live and breathe, all year (I wish I were joking). We always curate our programming—which includes feature films from around the world, carefully paired with Canadian short films — to a particular theme each year (for example, Great Villains, Cinematic Cities, or this year, Dynamic Duos), and we select our programme themes about two years ahead and carefully scout films from across the history of cinema that will give our audience a broad and deep exploration of that theme over a summer. Furthermore, so many of the local and Canadian filmmakers whose films we’ve screened claim that our screenings are among their favourite—it’s just a unique experience that we’re all happy to be a part of.

 

If you could watch any film outdoors in any Canadian city (besides Toronto) where would it be and which movie would you choose?

Ohhh, good question. I’m going to choose my hometown of Ottawa (actually, I’m Québécoise from across the river, but that’s a technicality) because there’s a fantastic mom-and-pop operation run by two old friends and former Film Studies classmates of mine called Capital Pop-Up Cinema that presents great nostalgic flicks across the city. If there’s one film that I’ve wanted so badly to present but haven’t had a chance yet, it’s Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. It’s such perfection, and it has such beautiful outdoor evening scenes. In a way, I think I dreamed of watching this film outdoors long before my festival was my brainchild.

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