Indie-Supporter Rooftop Films Kicks Off 18th Season With Sundance Breakout 'Obvious Child'
The outdoor festival is known for generating early buzz for up-and-coming filmmakers and using ticket sales to fund filmmaker grants.
Saturday night’s sold-out screening of A24’s comedy Obvious Child kicked off Rooftop Films' 18th summer film festival. The outdoor festival, known for staging unique events throughout New York City, has a reputation for financially supporting indie film and building buzz for up-and-coming filmmakers like Lena Dunham and Benh Zeitlin. This summer’s lineup of 32 features and 13 short film programs includes highly anticipated indies like Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, along with Sundance favorites Appropriate Behavior, Ping Pong Summer and Cold in July.
The evening started with a 30-minute set from the New York-based band Rumors, whose bassist Chris Bordeaux scored Obvious Child. After the screening and Q&A, which included the film’s star, Jenny Slate, there was a no-VIP afterparty where, in traditional Rooftop fashion, the cast and crew hung out with their first New York audience.
“We make events that are built around movies,” Rooftop co-founder and program director Dan Nuxoll tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It's about creating something that you are never going to forget.”
“Rooftop has an energy that you can’t duplicate,” explains longtime indie film marketing and publicity executive Ryan Werner, who has worked on a number of movies, like Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, that screened at the festival. Werner tells THR that one of his best rooftop experiences was with a screening of the Oscar-nominated Cutie and the Boxer. “After the screening,” recalls Werner, "Ushio Shinohara [the artist profiled in Cutie] did a live-action painting for the crowd. It's a New York movie and to see it in that context was amazing."
Outdoor screenings have traditionally been frowned upon by film purists, who believe in dark theaters with no distractions. Nuxoll has heard the arguments before and is quick to point to Rooftop's well-established reputation for attentive audiences, which was on display Saturday night as Obvious Child received countless laughs from the crowd despite the unseasonably cold weather. Nuxoll also rejects the premise that setting and backdrop can’t enhance the viewer’s experience of art.
“Are most paintings made to be seen against a white wall?" Nuxoll rhetorically asks. "That seems unlikely to me. I would think most paintings could be complemented by their environment and I feel that way about film as well." To that end, Nuxoll says his biggest programming challenge is matching a film with a complementary screening location. For example, one of Rooftop’s new venues this summer is the Brooklyn Grange's rooftop farm in the Navy Yard. To match the intimate 200-person, agriculturally themed screening venue, Rooftop has programmed a series of short films that have a rural setting, along with Sara Dosa’s film about mushroom farmers (The Last Season). “We're also doing a film called The Disobedient,” explains Nuxoll, “which is a fantastic Serbian film that played at Sundance, that is about a cross-country bicycle trip through rural Serbia and has sex scenes in a chicken coop."
That's a completely different atmosphere from that of Obvious Child’s Saturday screening at Sunset Park’s Industry City, where a series of large industrial waterfront lofts created the ideal setting for a rock show and raucous afterparty. "All of our spaces are so different," explains Nuxoll. "For some of the films you might want a tight, intimate screening, some you want some giant thing where people can party and get drunk."
The bottom line is that over the past 18 years, Rooftop has developed a sizable and loyal following that will check out festival events throughout the five boroughs. It’s an audience that partner organizations like real estate developers, other arts organizations (like the Museum of Modern Art) and movie distributors also are trying to reach.
“The crowds are the perfect mixture of culturally savvy, engaged younger people,” Oscilloscope Labs co-head David Laub tells THR. “We find them very helpful for building buzz and awareness, especially for our kind of movies. They tend to get a crowd that both talks to people and is comfortable getting the word out on social media."
Obvious Child producer Elisabeth Holm agrees and knows how important Rooftop's unique events are for generating buzz. "Movies like Obvious Child don't have massive P&A budget and depend largely on word of mouth," Holm explains. "We're certainly hoping for some mouths to say words like, 'you gotta see this thing.' "
Rooftop screenings don’t only help indie movies get seen, they also help movies get made. Instead of handing out a screening fee, Rooftop donates $1 from every ticket sold to its Filmmakers Grants, which are available to anyone who has screened at Rooftop and is looking to make another film. Obvious Child, for example, was originally a short film that screened at Rooftop in 2010. When writer-direct Gillian Robespierre adapted it into a feature-length script, Rooftop became an early supporter with a lighting and grip equipment grant for Eastern Effect. Obvious Child joins an impressive list of films Rooftop has financially helped, including Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
“I hope everyone gets rich making their films, but they won't,” explains Nuxoll, who says Rooftop created the grant program to establish a direct connection between its audience and filmmakers' careers. “More important to me is they keep making movies. The cycle is what matters."