John Wyatt was having lunch in a cemetery when the thought came to him for what would become one of Los Angeles’ liveliest movie nights. It wasn’t just any cemetery, but the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where many of Tinseltown’s most famous have been laid to rest in the bosom of the city, just off Santa Monica Boulevard, and Wyatt, who was there to visit a friend, couldn’t help but notice how wide open the lawn was in front of him and the sky above.
“I thought, Wow, it sure would be fun to be watch a movie, listen to music, have a picnic, but be surrounded by all this Hollywood history,” Wyatt recalls. “At the time, there was no outdoor movies in Los Angeles. There was just this open space, sitting there waiting.”
In the 15 years since, Wyatt has has ensured immortality for those that reside there permanently every Saturday night on the Fairbanks Lawn between May through September while granting a heavenly respite for those living in Los Angeles with Cinespia, which has kept the Hollywood Forever Cemetery as a base but has expanded well beyond its initial conception by any measure — a recent tribute to Prince brought out 4000 people to sit amongst the palm trees lit up with the musician’s favorite color to watch “Purple Rain,” preceded by Questlove spinning at the turntable as blankets were laid out and picnic baskets opened. While Wyatt certainly couldn’t have envisioned *this*, it is along the lines of what he had in mind when he and Richard Petit first spoke about finding a unique place for their film club to set up shop.
“I really look for movies that are just going to be a great time,” says Wyatt. “You would never have a reason not to watch them. You forget your phone. You forget the outside world. You’re in the story. You’re in this world of a filmmaker, and you go along for the ride. I really look for films that make you feel when they’re over like you really experienced something and you saw a great work of art and a great work of cinema. You feel the satisfaction of being entertained and maybe more than that.”
For a communal event that’s been known to make lifelong connections between those who don’t know each other beforehand, it was fitting that Cinespia all began with “Strangers on the Train,” a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic on the mausoleum wall for 300 people that required a pickup truck with two 35mm projectors hooked up to the back, but when the film ended, Wyatt recalls, “Everyone started applauding, and I thought to myself, wow, this could be something really special, so I immediately went back to the cemetery and said, ‘We need to be doing these all the time.'”
There was only slightly more technical sophistication when Wyatt showed Samuel Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street” shortly after, but word had quickly spread about what he was up to and nearly a thousand people showed up. As the crowds grew, so did the ambition, with Wyatt, a former DJ himself during the ’90s, quickly pulling in friends to set the mood with music and hiring a professional photographer to work a photo booth, complete with a set appropriate for the film, where audiences could take a piece of the experience back home with them.
“I felt very strongly, especially in the early days when we showed a lot of films from the ’30s and the ’40s that once [these films are] playing on a big screen with a crowd, they’re transformed. It’s so different than watching them at home alone, and they’re so fun and witty and [it was important] bringing it out of that atmosphere and having it be in something new where you’re celebrating and you’re feeling this community around you as you do what so many of us in Los Angeles love to do and that’s enjoy a movie, all of us together. “We really enjoyed building this environment around each of these films in different ways.”
The programming has grown both latitudinally and longitudinally, running the gamut from modern blockbusters, classics and family films, not to mention the recurring “Movies All Night” marathon that began six years ago and has become an annual highlight. Tickets were scalped for nearly $700 a pop when Cinespia hosted the “Breaking Bad” series finale in 2013 with the cast and crew on hand and given to fans for free for the recent L.A. premiere of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon,” reflecting how Cinespia has become the place to make that special event just a little more special.
Cinespia has also moved outside of the cemetery in the fall, winter and spring, in recent years taking advantage of the revitalization of downtown Los Angeles and the restoration of its movie palaces to truly transport audiences to another time. The Palace Theater was turned into Toontown for a March screening of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and for “The Godfather,” Wyatt and his staff spared no expense in recreating the Corleone wedding in the ballroom of the Los Angeles Theater, complete with a band playing Italian standards of the ’40s and ’50s and insisting the guests wear era-appropriate attire from jackets and ties to vintage gowns. (“When it came time to open the doors, this flood of people came in looking like they had stepped out of the film,” says Wyatt.)
“These places are gorgeous,” Wyatt says of the expansion to movie palaces. “They’re from the 1920s. Many of them are never open to the public. We’ve been going in, filling them up with people and showing films to thousands of people and some giant, beautiful theaters. They’re an important part of our city and I think they need to be in use.”
With great popularity and year-around programming already, you might wonder if Cinespia has room to grow even further, but Wyatt insists it happens at every screening as an audience of old and young shares a film together for the first time.
“That is the most exciting thing about what we do is when someone has never seen a film and they get to experience it for the first time because of us,” says Wyatt. “That’s truly satisfying to open a door for them that maybe would have been closed for years and maybe forever.”
Wyatt recalls specifically showing Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” last summer to an audience full of young people, who in his words, “may have never seen a Hal Ashby film or even seen many films from the ‘70s, but I guarantee you 4,000 people walked away Hal Ashby fans.” Yet while many around him were seeing the black comedy about Bud Cort’s macabre-obsessed young man who finds a connection with Ruth Gordon’s vivacious septuagenarian for the first time in many years, if ever, he could see what he was doing with Cinespia with fresh eyes himself.
“The film is about celebrating life, but it takes place in cemeteries, at funerals, and people really felt it,” says Wyatt of seeing the film at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. “They thought about life and death and celebrating life and death. You don’t really want to go there on a Saturday night per se. It’s not something you want to do on a date, maybe, but Hal Ashby does it in such a beautiful way, it really resonated, and I don’t think there’s any other place in the world that you could show a movie that and get that feeling.”
Although it remains unique, Wyatt somehow is able to conjure those kind of emotions every weekend with Cinespia.
For more on the fearless film programmers of Los Angeles:
– When Pharmaceutical Companies Own the Rights to Your Favorite Film & Other Job Hazards: LA Film Programmers Tell All
– USC’s Alessandro Ago on Complementing a Moviemaking Education with One in Moviegoing
– Brian Udovich on Firing on All Cylinders with Reel Grit
– Worth Staying Up For: Phil Blankenship on Heavy Midnites, L.A.’s Wildest Movie Night
– Mark Olsen Brings Festival Favorites Into “Indie Focus” in LA
– How “Last Remaining Seats” Restores the Classics in Downtown L.A.