Bryant Park Movie Series Perseveres

New York Sun
June 23, 2008

by S. James Snyder

For film lovers in New York City, summertime means two things: flashy blockbusters in air-conditioned megaplexes, and outdoor movie screenings on calm summer nights. On nearly every night of the week, in various neighborhoods spread across every borough, one doesn't need to walk far to find an outdoor event attracting a crowd.

Most of these gatherings bill themselves as escapes. RiverFlicks, which kicks off next month, brings film fans to the western edge of Manhattan at Pier 45 with separate seri es of films for adults (Wednesdays) and families (Fridays). Across the East River, "Movies With a View" draws crowds to Brooklyn Bridge Park for weekly screenings (the 2008 season kicks off July 10 with a screening of "Stand By Me"). Even Rooftop Films, with its assorted screenings across the city, promises to elevate audiences above the hustle and bustle of asphalt with dozens of summer programs (this Friday, a series of surrealistic shorts will be shown on the Lower East Side).

But one outdoor movie series is different than all the others. The Bryant Park Summer Film Festival doesn't take people away from the skyscrapers, but instead lures them into the heart of Midtown, into a park that is encased within the steel and glass of the surrounding real estate. It is, perhaps, the most striking park space in all the city.

"It's quite a sight, to see 15,000 people on a good day coming into Midtown and to this park, in the middle of everything, to see a movie," the executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation, Daniel Biederman, said. "What we've found is that it's a very big event for people who are new to New York - for young people who are exploring the city."

For these moviegoers, it might come as a surprise that the Bryant Park Film Festival, now in its 16th year, was once organized as a way to draw people to an area of town that was widely seen as unsafe and undesirable. "It's hard to think back to that time, but the first day we did it, it was really a leap of faith for two reasons," Mr. Biederman said. "First, it wasn't a given that people would feel safe at night in this area in 1993, right in the middle of Manhattan in the dark. And second, the enclosure of all these buildings made it an unusual place to see a movie. We wondered how people would react to that."

The concept for the event occurred to Mr. Biederman when he was vacationing in upstate New York, near Geneva. Seeing an advertisement for a rural outdoor movie series, he was immediately struck with the idea of replicating this experience in the heart of the city. After discussing the idea with the chairman of HBO, Mr. Biederman said, he was given the encouragement he needed. As the Bryant Park Corporation and HBO tackled the logistics and programming, the film festival was born.

This year's screenings take place every Monday evening. Last week, the very first James Bond film, 1962's "Dr. No," kicked off the 2008 season. Tonight, "Bride of Frankenstein," the James Whale classic from 1935, will dazzle audiences with its mix of surface-level horror and subversive sexual themes.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is an interesting programming choice for a summer movie series, particularly given Bryant Park's prominence as a romantic destination.

"In the beginning, we were surprised at the age of some of the people who attended," Mr. Biederman said. "It became a big date destination, something of a romantic rendezvous. We've had numerous engagements announced at the event. What we see is a lot of the married workers go home on the trains right after work, and it's more the young New Yorkers who are out and doing things in Midtown between 6 p.m. and midnight."

But rather than cater specifically to the younger crowd with the latest Will Ferrell comedy, Will Smith thriller, or classic blockbuster, Mr. Biederman and those who organize the festival's titles have chosen a more challenging contingent of outdoor titles. Next week, Paul Newman's "Hud" will be the featured film; the Bette Davis romantic comedy "The Man Who Came to Dinner" is scheduled to screen July 7. A week later, it's the Sidney Lumet nuclear-war thriller "Fail-Safe," from 1964; On August 4, the park will offer the 1944 war thriller "Lifeboat," directed by Alfred Hitchcock from the story by John Steinbeck.

"We're trying to do something special here," Mr. Biederman said. "There are no movies here made after 1976, and the reasoning behind this is that we really wanted to try and fill in the gaps left by the closing revival houses. Actually, 'Superman' was made in 1978, so basically there's nothing from the last 30 years, but with so many revival houses in Midtown closing, this is a conscious attempt to bring back some of the titles that can't be seen on the big screen any more."