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Summer Fun: Why We Need Rooftop Films

How one Brooklyn non-profit bucks the alienation of the digital age by putting community and indie film first—up on the roofs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Rooftop Films

These days, films are more accessible than ever. That's a fact. And for the days where we choose to make it a special dinner-and-a-movie (and not Chinese-food-and-my-MacBook) night, the idea of watching a film in a theater can be better than the hassle-filled $15.00 reality of watching commercials for twenty minutes and then nonsensical stuff blowing up for two hours.

There's a particular alchemy practiced by Brooklyn's Rooftop Films that creates singular and special film experiences. Naturally, outdoor films thrive in the summer, but Rooftop takes that principle—getting people outside to watch a film—and flips it on its head, adding bands, afterparties, and wonderfully curated programs. They then take all that to the sky, creating a truly wonderful vibe. It's a New York treasure and certainly something to cite when you want to make people jealous that you live here.

It's safe to say that Rooftop's founder and artistic director Mark Elijah Rosenberg wasn't thinking that a a simple, brilliant idea—screening films for friends on a rooftop in 1997—would lead to his career as the head of the non-profit more than a decade later. "As a native New Yorker, I had always hung out on my rooftop," he said in a recent interview over the phone. "I thought it'd be fun to do a screening on a rooftop. I started it in 1997 and called it a film festival. I had some films of my own"—he's a filmmaker in addition to his Rooftop work—"and films by my friends and films I had seen in other festivals. I had never really planned for it to continue past [that one] screening, even though I called it a festival."

Once summer rolled around, however, Rosenberg continued to have friends up on the roof for films: "The way I knew that there was a space for it was that people were coming. It was getting bigger every year. We were all doing it because it was fun, but it seemed like a natural next step to make sure that it was sustainable." In 2003, Rooftop Films went from a volunteer-run program to a community non-profit, and "in the past two years, we've really created a critical mass. We show short films and feature films. We get films from around the world and bring in the filmmakers to participate. It's grown into a distinct thing in the film industry world. It's a festival and community organization that brings people together—average citizens and film industry people—in a way that's unique and exciting."

Rooftop Films occupies a neat niche in the world of film exhibition because it ties together community spirit and art appreciation. There's a sunset, a band plays (Chairlift, whose immensely catchy song "Bruises" was featured on iPod Nano ads, are one prime example of Rooftop's impeccable ear for bands-on-the-verge), and then the films (shorts or features) screen. What each evening has in common is that the staff takes the time to match the rooftop location (and think of the logistics: getting truckloads of equipment and thousands of people in and out of over sixteen different non-theater locations across Manhattan and Brooklyn) to the band to the film program. And there's always an afterparty at a nearby bar with cheap (or free) drinks.

The scope of Rooftop is impressive as well: the Summer 2009 program will have weekend shows on Fridays and Saturdays from May 15 to September 20. If you put all their programs together, Rooftop could stand proudly next to any film festival's ambitions. That said, the screening series is only one arm of the program. They also disseminate grants to filmmakers, provide low-cost equipment rentals for artists and non-profits, and teach media literacy and film production at the schools that lend out their roofs.

"We're all in this together as independent filmmakers and fans," says Rosenberg, and this year's program is expanding that ideal. One beneficiary of a Rooftop grant, Belgian documentarian Fabio Wuytack, will show his work Persona Non Grata, about his missionary father's return to Venezuela, in a special showcase screening (Saturday, June 13) for potential distributors as well as the public. Another New York documentary screening later in the summer will be the subject of a Rooftop viral campaign, where if you check out the doc in the theaters, you can bring your ticket stub and get in free to another Rooftop screening. "It's a way for us to exhibit a film and help it in a tangible way at the box office. If you [support the film], we'll give you something free. That kind of collaboration and community is what's really necessary in independent film these days."

Community support is certainly on Rosenberg's mind these days: like any small artistic group, Rooftop has been hit hard by the economy, "through forces out of our control. Foundations who have supported us for years just can't give away money. New York State slashed ten million dollars slated for arts programs. The resources from traditional means and sponsors are not necessarily there for anybody." With that in mind, Rooftop is starting a fundraising campaign. They're not looking for $1,000 donors, per se (although they wouldn't say no); they're kicking it Howard Dean-2004-style, looking for people who can spare even a buck. "We just want to prove that this is something that the community supports."

And with a killer schedule that includes a screening of Lynne Shelton's Cannes-friendly subversive bromance Humpday (Shelton previously appeared to screen her last film, 2008's My Effortless Brilliance) and loads of short film programs from around the world, it's pretty obvious that Rooftop provides a space for films to thrive overlooking New York City. (A new venue this year is the roof of Brooklyn Tech: according to Rosenberg, you can watch the sun set over Manhattan. Students aren't even allowed up top—the only time it will be open will be for Rooftop.)

Rosenberg explains, "I'm a filmmaker, and there's a thrill when you make something and show it to people and they react. For me, personally, there's a tremendous thrill in finding films that someone else made and showing them to people." It's a simple mission, and the people behind Rooftop do a hell of a job in executing it. Rosenberg sums up, "I think that in this day and age, it's increasingly easy to get access to these films, but it's increasingly difficult to find genuine communities that coalesce around art."

Rooftop Films' Summer Series kicks off this Friday, May 15, with This Is What We Mean By Short Films.

Twitter Contest Alert! To win a pair of tickets to Friday's event, you need to do three things by Thursday, May 14, at 5:00 pm: 1) sign up for Twitter; 2) follow TribecaFilm on Twitter; and 3) tweet @TribecaFilm with the title of the Summer 2009 movie you are most excited about. Read the contest rules.

Follow Rooftop Films on Twitter.


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