The Frame

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Cinespia: How one 'odd idea' sparked 14 years of filmgoing at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery

by Michelle Lanz and Cameron Kell | The Frame

Cinespia Press Image 132 KELLY LEE BARRETT

Summertime in Los Angeles means a lot of things: Beach days, ditching work early on Fridays (if you’re lucky), wildfires, and, of course, Cinespia — outdoor movie screenings among the graves and crypts at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  

Cinespia was created in 2002 by John Wyatt, who hoped to bring classic and cult films to an audience that’s likely never seen them on the big screen. Over the last 14 years, the program has grown into an insanely popular event that brings up to 4,000 people together on picnic blankets every weekend from May to September.

Wyatt has expanded Cinespia to include special events like the screening of last year’s finale episode of "Breaking Bad" and screening at the Ace Hotel Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. 

Wyatt stopped by The Frame studio to talk about how he chooses the movies to screen, the famous people buried at Hollywood Forever and how Hitchcock features into the birth of Cinespia. .

Interview Highlights:

Typically, you don't have to worry about the weather. But this year's proved a little more challenging for Cinespia, right?

For the first time in 14 years, we got rained out of a show in the middle of July in Los Angeles, and we had our coldest May since the 1920s. So we felt that too, but people still turned out to be out there in the cold in May, and everybody wanted to come in the rain — they really didn't want us to cancel, but unfortunately it was too unsafe for my guys to set up, so we pulled the plug.

People who haven't been to one of your venues, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, might imagine that they're balancing their wine bottles on headstones, so even though you're projecting movies on the wall of a mausoleum, explain the separation between where the audience is and where people's remains are buried.

Well, it's a beautiful location and a very old cemetery, over 100 years old, and in the center of it is a giant lawn called the Fairbanks Lawn. It was originally part of the Fairbanks' monument, for Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

You're not amongst the graves at any time, you're on paved roads, and then you come deep inside the cemetery to this beautiful open lawn, you have the Paramount backlot just over your shoulder, and it's really a unique place to see the films that all of these people made when they were alive.

Because a lot of the people who were in the movies are buried there, right?

That's true, more than we even know. Certainly the famous directors and actors like Peter Laurie, John Huston, Cecil B. Demille, the people who worked on the backlot, the costumers, the hair people, the grips...really, you have all these kinds of Hollywood people buried there, not just the famous ones. That gives us a lot of satisfaction.

The cemetery itself had been in a state of disrepair not that long ago. When you're having your initial conversations about why this would be a good place to show films, what were those conversations like? What were the obstacles that you had to overcome to get your movies shown there?

They thought it was an odd idea when I first pitched it, but there was a movement with the Cemetery to not only restore the grounds but also to bring some cultural events and life there. So they were a little skeptical, but they said, "Let's try one."

I showed Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," and we had a couple-hundred people — the word had kinda gotten out — and when the movie reached its end, everybody started cheering and screaming, and I thought, Wow, this really could be something

So when you're picking movies for your screenings, what are the kinds of things you're looking for? Or, if it's easier, what are the kinds of things you're not looking for?

The first thing we want is to show a great, classic film, but we also want it to feel fresh and modern, we want it to grab our viewers and keep them entertained, and we want them to walk away with a feeling like they just experienced a great work of art. Maybe it challenges them a little, maybe it scandalizes or scares them a little, but they should walk out feeling like they just experienced great cinema.

Especially these days, when you're so often watching film on a laptop by yourself, suddenly seeing them with thousands of people becomes a really different experience, and it's important — it's the way these films were meant to be seen, and on the big screen they become something totally different.

How do you measure the success of a screening? Is it the way in which a crowd reacts to the movie? How many people show up? Or whether or not you get A-List Hollywood people in the audience?

[laughs] Really, it's measured by how the crowd reacts, how much they love the movie. Because this is Los Angeles, you're going to have a movie star next to an aspiring screenwriter next to the girl who served her coffee that morning, and really we're all together on this field and we all become movie-lovers. We drop who we are and what we do, and we just jump into this thing that we love to do.

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