Our Favorites 2020: When Rooftop Films Projected the Strength of a City and of Cinema

In this most trying of years, we looked to those in the film community who went to great lengths to bring joy to audiences and a reason to be optimistic for the future for Our Favorites series. We will be highlighting their efforts throughout this week.

Todd Chandler couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he stepped out onto the pitch at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in September for a screening of his debut feature “Bulletproof.” The film, a fascinating look at how generations of American students are being asked to accept school shootings as a part of their education through what’s being done to prevent them, was scheduled to premiere in March at SXSW, but when the festival was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, he consigned himself to the thought that “Bulletproof” might not see the big screen, with its festival run rerouted to virtual cinemas when the likes of Hot Docs migrated online and no assurance that theaters would be back open by the time it would be distributed more widely. He couldn’t be any more surprised and delighted when he received an invite from Rooftop Films to screen the film at their makeshift drive-in in Queens.

“I remember crying, alone in my car while driving to the screening, which was confusing to me,” Chandler recently told me in an e-mail. “Sitting in rush hour traffic en route to a screening and Q&A would be a fairly prosaic — and possibly annoying — activity six months into the life of a film in any other year. But, in this case it felt so exceptional, and even surreal, that it brought into focus all that I was missing, everything I had given up on for the life of this film.”

Once he got to the gate, Chandler giddily awaited someone to take his temperature and got out of the car briefly to snap pictures to send back to Elizabeth Lo, who couldn’t be in town herself for what inadvertently became the New York premiere of her documentary “Stray” five months after it was set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival as the second half of the double bill. After he and producer Danielle Varga thought they would never see “Bulletproof” with an audience, the filmmakers were greeted with honking horns and flashing headlights, and Chandler was awed for other reasons, knowing what logistics must’ve been involved in setting up such a screening when he had previously created a full-scale, temporary drive-in art installation commissioned by the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) on this same patch of land a few years earlier.

“I know firsthand that it wouldn’t have been easy to pull this off in a normal year, but given the COVID restrictions and the labyrinthine bureaucracy at the local, city, and state levels, it really was a miracle (born of persistence and endless work) that they were able to pull this off,” said Chandler. “Dan Nuxoll and Dominic Davis from Rooftop, Eric Hynes from MoMI [which provided the projector], and Liz Slagus from NYSCI did so much for independent filmmakers by getting this drive-in up and running. As one of those filmmakers and as an audience member, I feel very thankful for all that they and their teams did to create a cinema where filmmakers and audiences could watch films together in a time where that simple act seemed impossible.”

In an ordinary year, what Rooftop Films does seems like a miracle, so there’s going to have to be a new word for what they achieved in 2020. Quite literally when Nuxoll and his team erect the scaffolding to show a film as big as possible against the night sky, it stands alone outside of the regional festival circuit as a place where indie films can feel like a one-of-a-kind event and requires a Herculean endeavor that involves months of lead time securing permission and permits for public spaces across the city, selecting films out of countless submissions as any festival does and creating events around the films to make the evening extraordinary, whether it’s musical guests playing beforehand or simply well-curated programming. But while Rooftop prizes being unique, they weren’t expecting to be alone as the only exhibitor in New York during the pandemic.

“There was definitely a tremendous sense of like, ‘Well, if we didn’t do it, maybe no one will,’” said Dan Nuxoll, Rooftop’s Artistic Director, just a week after their last screening of 2020 could provide families with a safe excursion out of the house with Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s “Wolfwalkers” at the Queens Drive-In. “Frankly, I figured eventually some other organizations were going to figure out how to show movies in the city, and we might be first to figure this out on a large scale or one of the first, but no one else really sank into that void at all. We did almost every single New York premiere from March until now, and I say those words and it doesn’t even make sense to me. The idea that one organization was at the center of 95% of the film screenings of new movies in New York City in a single year seems insane, but it’s what happened.”

Everything that makes Rooftop Films such a special organization had prepared it for this moment in time, but it hardly looked that way at first. When New York shut down in March, Nuxoll had strongly suspected that the city was unlikely to open back up by May when Rooftop would traditionally start their summer series, and at a time of year when agreements needed to be finalized to secure locations, sponsorships and films to screen, Rooftop couldn’t commit to anything. Moreover, the nonprofit faced an existential crisis when a lost season could quite likely destroy the infrastructure that had taken two decades to build with potential furloughs looming for its permanent staff of seven and the possibility of discontinuing its year-around support for filmmakers, offering grants and discounted equipment rentals as well as a deep network of resources to draw on.

An emergency fundraising campaign commenced — and remains ongoing — to keep the lights on, but there was enough support early coming in for the team to begin rethinking what the screening series could look like if the show were to go on.

“I had a hunch that drive-ins might be the only way to do things right from the start, even before any of the city or the state had allowed it,” says Nuxoll, who estimates he reached out to 25 to 30 venues in the weeks that followed. “The restrictions lasted longer and were worse than I thought it would be — and I had thought they’d be pretty bad — but when everything was kind of frozen, [we] used that time to really do the research that we needed, and luckily, we have lots of relationships with different venues all around the city, so I just started talking to everybody to see what locations might be feasible financially and logistically, figuring out what we need to do to adapt our typical setups to something like a drive-in.”

There was a lot riding on what Rooftop would be capable of — with indoor theaters closed completely, a number of films were looking at a future in which they would go straight to streaming without ever gracing the big screen and a pre-pandemic conversation that Nuxoll had with Eugene Hernandez, the newly appointed Director of the New York Film Festival, about reviving an outdoor screening component for the fall fest had evolved into taking on the entirety of its physical edition with Lincoln Center shut down indefinitely. Rooftop had done a few pop-up drive-in events before, so Nuxoll wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the logistics involved and even realized that with the ability for the audience to tune in to a radio frequency would eliminate the need for setting up speakers and there was no need to worry about a little rain if people were already in their cars.

However, without the usual time to line up sponsors to help subsidize a lineup, let alone one that would have different requirements than in years past, Rooftop was facing a Rubik’s cube-like jumble of coordinating resources, even with the generosity and openness of other organizations to collaborate immediately coming to the fore. Still, as Nuxoll and the Rooftop team sorted out who might’ve had equipment to lend or money allocated in their budget for events that could be deployed in a partnership, the Rooftop team would build on existing connections to forge new ones for the greater good of New York’s film culture as the season took on a momentum of its own.

“We were doing twice as many events, but we didn’t have twice as many sponsors signed up for those sorts of things,” said Nuxoll, who pulled off a season of 125 total events, 85 of which were new films, nearly double what Rooftop would traditionally do. “Luckily, that came together really nicely and once that was moving, it was an additional way for us to communicate to an even broader audience what we were doing. The fact that we were doing New York Film Festival [later in the year], and that was announced, just made it that much easier for us to book some of the other things that we’re doing and get some of the other support that we needed to make it happen.”

After striking deals with the New York City Economic Development Corporation for one drive-in at Brooklyn Army Terminal on the pier in Sunset Park and another with New York Hall of Science and Museum of the Moving Image for the drive-in in Queens, Rooftop would enable the New York Film Festival, Newfest and the New Yorker Festival to have some version of their event this year and launch a season unlike any other on July 17th with a screening of “John Lewis: Good Trouble” in Brooklyn, which seemed particularly poignant spiritually as the Black Lives Matter movement was at the forefront of the national conversation and specifically to Rooftop when the film’s director Dawn Porter has has long had her work shown there.

“It’s a film that we’d already been considering strongly in general, but it was just perfect timing and with something that we really wanted to feature for obvious reasons to open things up,” said Nuxoll, who unexpectedly witnessed the screening become even more of a touching tribute to the legendary civil rights icon than the film itself already was. “It actually turned out tragically, John Lewis passed away during the screening. We found out right when the credits were rolling.”

“I love a good Q & A — love it. It’s how I feel I process films,” says Casimir Nozkowski, the director of “The Outside Story” who found himself having as many questions as answers when the film screened at Rooftop in August. “I’m like, “How is this going to work? We’re wearing masks. What’s the deal?” But we just spread out six feet away from each other — it felt really dystopian in a really great way, like we were looking at the future and even though there’s all this anxiety around the edges of it, it was a really beautiful, life-affirming night.”

For Nozkowski, the premiere of “The Outside Story” could feel both foreign and familiar as he stepped out in front of a sea of cars on the night of August 1st. Some of those cars were filled with various members of the crew and cast, such as Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Michael Cyril Creighton and Nadia Bowers honking hellos from afar. (He could at least sit close to one of the film’s stars, sharing a vehicle with his wife Hannah Bos.) It had always been a dream to screen his utterly charming debut feature at Rooftop after its planned premiere at Tribeca when he’s had a short film to show at their summer nearly every year since it began. But after making the comedy starring Brian Tyree Henry as an introverted film editor who is slowly drawn out of his apartment by the goodness of others, he found himself in the unusual situation of living out the film’s plot in broad strokes when the trek out to Sunset Park was the first time his family had been anywhere outside their home besides his mother’s place since the pandemic began.

“For several months, I was like, ‘Okay, I guess this film is just not going to have its festival run,” says Nozkowski, who saw a silver lining in the situation when he could be home with his young child rather than accompanying the film on the road. “[I thought] ‘That’s okay. I’m going to adapt.’ But being able to be in touch with Rooftop and hear that “Hey, we’re doing this” and “We’re trying this, we’re going for this,” it was gratifying to know that we were going to have this amazing first screening, and it also gave me insight into how the rest of the festival landscape was developing.”

It may have been hard for Nozkowski to have an even greater appreciation for what Rooftop had become as an organization over the years – throughout the production of “The Outside Story,” he was reminded time and again of their unwavering support of his career and how plugged in they were to both the film community and local government when he would receive help on practical matters of filming in New York, with their working knowledge of real estate projects and parks and buildings departments as a result of booking events unparalleled. However, he still marveled at how it became a nerve center for the New York film community as the city adjusted to a new normal.

Nuxoll and the Rooftop team had been feverishly working the phones, and information had become a two-way street as the organization may have been piecing together their season, but were helping others figure out how to plan for the future as well after gathering a lay of the land. “The Outside Story” would play at film fests that had gone virtual such as Mill Valley and Savannah and even a few other drive-ins in Woodstock and the Method Fest in Los Angeles, but to have the film’s first screening in New York was special for Nozkowski and for Nuxoll, that made all the time setting it into motion worth it.

“I’ve known Cas for 25 years and we showed his earliest short films years ago, so knowing that what a disappointment it was for him to have Tribeca’s screenings canceled, that [screening] was obviously very meaningful,” says Nuxoll, who was especially excited to welcome back filmmakers such as Kirsten Johnson (“Dick Johnson is Dead”) and Sami Khan (“The Last Out”) that they had given grants to in the early stages of their work or whose plans with the finished film had been derailed by the pandemic. “[‘The Outside Story’] is very much a Brooklyn movie. It’s about getting to know your neighbors and being together in Brooklyn, so in that regard it was deeply meaningful for us on multiple levels, personal and professional and artistically, to be able to help that screening to happen.”

In 2021, Rooftop Films will celebrate their 25th anniversary, which while being perhaps unthinkable as recently as last March was likely even more so in 1997 when Mark Elijah Rosenberg ran a projector up to the roof of his apartment building in the East Village. The filmmaker had wanted to show a collection of short films made by friends that hadn’t been widely distributed and 300 people showed up strictly on the promise of seeing something new. As the films unspooled, Rosenberg could delight in the fact that he had created a space for people to discover the work of other filmmakers, but there was also the epiphany that people are more willing to go into the unknown together.

“We’re not necessarily showing you things you shouldn’t see, but rather finding a unique and new way to show you things you should see, but wouldn’t unless you came to Rooftop,” Rosenberg told the Gothamist in 2008. “You can come to Rooftop Films and enjoy amazing, original movies in a whole new way.”

That was never more true than in 2020, even if it meant moving heaven and earth for Rooftop’s staff to do it safely. Even as Rooftop has grown into a more formal and sprawling endeavor, the mission hasn’t changed, providing audiences with a night of cinematic discovery they were unlikely to forget and support for filmmakers with daring vision in ways that they are not often offered, and as much as this year changed the dynamic of what that collective experience was like, the power of it was undiminished and dependable when so much else seemed like shaky ground.

At the screening of “Bulletproof,” Chandler had watched the first 15 minutes of the film he made from his car, “thrilled at how it looked on the enormous screen and surprised at how good it sounded through my car’s 16-year-old stereo” before roaming around the park from each side to take in as much of the environment as he could. Although there couldn’t be a formal premiere party, an informal tailgate had been arranged at a nearby parking lot where between the masks and the distance from one another late at night may have made it difficult to know who was talking to who, the filmmaker recognized how special it was in this moment to share with friends and collaborators, getting the opportunity to thank them and hear their thoughts.

“Going to the drive-in was the only ‘normal’ social activity that my partner and I engaged in this year,” says Chandler, who would make the trip out to see Cecilia Aldarondo’s “Landfall,” David Osit’s “Mayor,” and Lana Wilson’s “Miss Americana.” “Each time we left the house, we thought, ‘Hey, we’re actually going on a date!’ It was meaningful to us to see these films the way they were meant to be seen, and to have an opportunity to show up in support of our friends.”

Even in this bleakest of years, it was seeing how many people of all stripes were showing up for one another that was moving for Nuxoll as well.

“One of the really heartening things about this experience was that we did collaborate on a more intimate and comprehensive level with other organizations than we ever had before,” says Nuxoll. “All of us knew that we couldn’t figure this out totally on our own and having organizations recognize and respond to that with a lot of generosity and enthusiasm and commitment and camaraderie with a totally different organization on pretty short notice was a big step for people to take. I think it meant a lot to all of us, and I’m sure that none of our organizations are going to be the same after having gone through that. We pulled off something really special together, and learned a lot of lessons from one another in the process.”

Naturally, Rooftop is already taking submissions for 2021.

[Photo Credit: Dan Nuxoll]

More Stories
Interview: Josh Boone on Getting Professionally Unstuck with “Stuck in Love”