It's hard to believe, but Rooftop Films has been showing films outdoors in New York City since 1997. Things have changed a lot since then, but in most ways we are still, at heart, the same hopeful and ambitious grassroots organization we where back then. Here is a brief history of the last 15 years on the roof.
1997: The Beginning
Rooftop Films came into existence in July of 1997 atop a tenement apartment building on 14th Street in Manhattan. Filmmaker Mark Elijah Rosenberg had just graduated from Vassar College and moved back to his native New York and was looking for an innovative way to get people together for screenings of new short films. It's never been easy to get people's attention in New York and drawing crowds of Gothamites to a night of avant garde cinema can be difficult. So instead of trying to rent a small dingy theater, Rosenberg got out his 16MM projector, a cheap sound system and a big white sheet and invited everyone he could find up to the roof above his little apartment. Hundreds came out, many with their films in tow, and the movies were screened deep into the night amidst the water towers and pigeon coops of the East Village skyline.
1998-2001: Early Summers in East Williamsburg
Unfortunately, his landlord found out about the screening and evicted him soon thereafter. But Rooftop Films had been born, and the following summer, Rosenberg teamed with Joshua Breitbart to bring Rooftop to Northern Brooklyn. The two built a sturdy screen on the roof of an old warehouse space that was being converted to lofts on McKibbin Street in East Williamsburg/Bushwick by Breitbart and future Rooftop Program Director Dan Nuxoll. Rooftop did a single screening of shorts there in 1998, then 5 more in the summer of 1999 and 8 more in the summer of 2000. Rooftop was a vital part of the emergence of Bushwick as a home for young filmmakers, artists and musicians, but we also worked hard to help the nascent artistic community partner with the families and communities that had been living in Bushwick for years.
Rooftop gradually became the organizing force at the center of a community of artists by having musicians and other artists perform before screenings, collaborating with dozens of other organizations to bring the visions of outside curators to the roof; and, most importantly, creating and maintaining an environment where filmmakers can come together, share their work and see amazing new films that aren't being screened anywhere else.
Slowly the word spread around Brooklyn and then around the rest of the city and the size of the crowds and the number of submissions we received steadily crept upwards. By 2001, the Rooftop Films Summer Series was a legitimate and popular underground festival with screenings running weekly throughout the summer and hundreds of people coming out each Friday to see some of the best new underground work being shown anywhere. Rooftop incorporated as a non-profit and put together a staff of hard working volunteers. Rosenberg stayed on as Artistic Director and Sarah Palmer and Dan Nuxoll joined on as Festival Director and Program Director, respectively. Rosenberg and Nuxoll are now full time year round employees of Rooftop Films, and they slave away year round to bring the most exciting new films to the roofs of the world. Genevieve DeLaurier came on as Managing Director, and Rooftop's paid year round staff expanded to 7 in 2008. Dozens more part-time employees, interns and devoted volunteers contribute to the cause by helping to gather and choose films, secure venues, advertise the shows, move and set up equipment and otherwise keep the Summer Series running smoothly.
In 2004, Rooftop set up offices and a new rooftop venue in Gowanus/Park Slope at the Old American Can Factory. Partnering with XO Projects, we installed a huge 21' x 14' permanent screen on the roof and the Can Factory has since hosted dozens of Roofotp shows and we will continue screening there in on into the future. Rooftop has screened films for thousands of people each year in a number of incredible outdoor locations, including the amazing Open Road Rooftop at New Design High School in the Lower East Side, the Parade Grounds on the newly re-opened Governor's Island, along the East River on Roosevelt Island, in the beautiful garden of Automotive High School in Williamsburg, floating around Manhattan aboard the Rocks Off Temptress Cruise Ship, along the Hudson at the River Project in Tribeca, in the courtyard of Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center in the Lower East Side, in Montreal in the University of Quebec's rooftop garden and even atop a spacious garage in Downtown Brooklyn. Always looking for spectacular and novel new locations, we are now looking at even more great outdoor locations to screen films, both around New York City and all over the East Coast.
2011: 15 Years on the Roof
Rooftop Films has grown larger and more influential every year of our existence and 2011 was undoubtedly our biggest year ever. We programmed 47 events, bringing more than 200 films to more than 30,000 people over the course of the summer.