Watching cinema stars under the stars

Since 2014, Iowa City’s own indie theater has drawn a community of families and film lovers alike to a unique cinema experience.


Emily Wangen

Moviegoers wait for a screening of La La Land to begin on the rooftop of Filmscene on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (Emily Wangen/The Daily Iowan)

Austin J. Yerington, Arts Reporter

On the rooftop of Filmscene, Ryan Gosling croons about stars while playing a piano on the screen. Wispy light from the projector hangs above a silent crowd. The sold-out showing of La La Land is one of many movies played on the roof patio in the heart of downtown Iowa City as part of FilmScene’s outdoor screenings.

FilmScene has hosted these outdoor screenings for five years now, said Emily Salmonson, the director of operations at FilmScene, and since the first screening, the event has created a life of its own, growing with each outing.

“The first rooftop was [in the] spring of 2014, and that was Wet Hot American Summer,” Salmonson said. “It was a good one to start with; it was perfect weather. It was a lot of fun. Ever since then, it’s just kind of been selling out naturally.”

The screenings are called back again and again with showings selling out fast because of the popular films that are presented in an outside-retreat fashion. The rooftop’s programming can range from popular modern pieces to the more beloved cult classics, with upcoming showings of The Matrix, the Back to the Future trilogy, and Fight Club.

“It’s a little deviation of what we program the other 365 days a year,” said Rebecca Fons, the FilmScene programming director. “The cult classics, anniversary years, or a movie you’ve seen a million times and you’ll watch a million more times.”

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The screenings are special because of the community that is created by FilmScene and the attendees, Fons said. Many of the screenings bring in cosplayers and kitschy, movie-referencing gifts. For example, the recent rooftop showing of 1984’s The Terminator had free sunglasses with one red dot on a lens in reference to the famous poster for the film.

But the gifts can be more of a deep cut from the screened movie, with the recent screening of Say Anything having free cobbler in a reference to the main character’s last name, Dobler. This environment of cheesiness and movie nerdorm is the bread and butter for the community-drawing event.

“[The rooftop screenings] can be a little bit cheesy in a way,” Salmonson said. “I think people really like that about them, too.”

Screenings start on a Sunday in late spring and run all the way through November, with the annual tradition of showing Fargo on the coldest Sunday of the month with the bonus of bottomless hot chocolate and coffee.

The showings attract a wide range of moviegoers, with crowds filled with both newcomers and regulars. Will Valet comes from Tipton, Iowa, to see the unique cinema series, with La La Land being his fourth time on the rooftop.

“You can get a drink, they have the music, and it’s always a really good crowd,” Valet said. “FilmScene really goes out of their way to make it an experience and not just a movie.”

The backdrop of downtown surrounding you not just makes for an open and free feeling compared to what indoor theaters offer. But the surroundings can also add to the depth you feel while watching the films, with films such as Alien or La La Land, which have large star-lit scenes, meld really well with the night sky, almost making a fully surrounding 3D experience.

With the event tied to the outside, it can be challenging because of the weather and technology, but to FilmScene and the fans it is well worth the effort, Fons said.

“I know putting the projector and the screen up there takes some work, but I think our whole staff really like [rooftop screenings]. They are this sort of this special thing.” Fons said. “They are this sort of this special thing, it’s a nice way to spend a Sunday evening.”

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