In New York, a rooftop is not merely a rooftop. Part refuge, part observation deck, the roof is where New Yorkers go to escape, embrace, and celebrate their city. It’s no surprise then, that filmmakers have long used rooftops to convey New York life: they’re ubiquitous, photogenic, and, most of all, emblematic. Think of all the rooftop shootouts and foot chases in the great New York gangster films—from The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Or the pigeon coops in On the Waterfront (1954), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)—offering rooftop reprieve to the burdened protagonists of those films. And who can forget the scene in Annie Hall (1977), where Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) fumble around topics of heritage—“You’re what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew!”—and photography while sipping white wine on the roof of Annie’s Upper East Side apartment building?
Still, barring city-sponsored screenings in Bryant and Central Parks, going to the movies in New York has generally been an indoor activity ever since Thomas Edison’s first coin-operated Kinetoscope parlor opened back in 1894, at Broadway and 26th Street. Today, the city’s famous venues are grand movie palaces, converted Chinese and Yiddish theaters, and art cinemas housed in swanky neighborhoods like Soho and Tribeca. In short: very expensive real estate. And while microcinemas have cropped up in unconventional spaces across the United States—from funeral homes to auto repair shops—the concept simply isn’t feasible on a modest budget in New York. Who has the space?
The answer can be found in the classic paradox describing who owns New York City: everyone, and no one.
Enter Rooftop Films, a nonprofit film festival and production collective started in 1997 by Mark Elijah Rosenberg, then just 22, fresh out of college, and recently returned to his hometown. “Being a native New Yorker, I’d always spent a lot of time on rooftops,” he says. “They’re these sort of private/public spaces that you can only access through the building. So you have this private entrance, but then everyone can see the outdoors. They’re just really wonderful.”
Rosenberg majored in film at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and moved into a six-floor walk-up in Manhattan’s East Village after graduation. “I used to go up [to my roof] to read, write, and just hang out all the time,” he says. “And because I had films and my friends had films, I thought it would be fun to have a party and screening all at once. It just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
So he bought a used 16mm projector for $60, borrowed 200 chairs from a furniture company, and taped a sheet to a wall at the edge of his roof. Then he told everyone he knew about the party, and on the day of the screening he went to a concert in Central Park and passed out business card-size invitations to his roof. Over 300 people turned out for the event, and Rosenberg, whose screening was in massive violation of his lease, was promptly evicted.
“I never thought I was starting a film festival,” he says of that first night. “I thought I was hosting a little one-time thing, but it worked out so well that once the next spring rolled around I thought I’d do it again.”
Fortunately, Rosenberg’s friend Dan Nuxoll, also a 1997 Vassar graduate, and his friend Joshua Breitbart were converting an old East Williamsburg warehouse into a loft when Rosenberg lost his apartment. “We had access to the roof,” Nuxoll says, adding that the area was far less regulated than most Manhattan properties. “Artists could get away with doing more there than they could anywhere else in the city. So we asked our landlord if we could build a screen on the roof, and he said, ‘Yeah sure, whatever. Go ahead.’”
Breitbart and Nuxoll hosted the festival’s weekly Friday night screenings for the next five years, while Rosenberg remained the organization’s artistic director. In that time, Rooftop Films grew exponentially: its annual submissions more than tripled, from a couple hundred during the late 1990s to 900 in 2003. It now features up to 16 weeks of programming each summer, DVDs, a zine, production grants, education initiatives, and traveling programs that have screened across the United States and in Canada. Last year 1,200 submissions came from all over the world and Nuxoll, who has been program director since 2001, says he expects to receive between 1,500 and 2,000 films by the end of the 2005 season.
They don’t advertise for lack of funds, Nuxoll says, but instead rely on word-of-mouth, cold-calling film schools, sending out emails, and distributing self-made posters and postcards by hand.
That shotgun approach draws the gamut of film projects, including experimental shorts, animations, documentaries, and feature films. And while some of them are one-off productions by first-time filmmakers, others come from highly accomplished independent directors. Sam Green, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground (2002), screened one of his early films, Pie Fight ’69, at Rooftop in the summer of 2000. That season, Rooftop also screened a short film by Peter Sollet about a group of teenage kids on the Lower East Side titled Five Feet High and Rising, which later became the acclaimed 2002 feature Raising Victor Vargas.
In recent years, the Rooftop team has taken programs to art galleries, cafes, and microcinemas in New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, among other cities. They also moved from East Williamsburg to Gowanus, where they have hosted the last two seasons atop the Old American Can Factory, and this summer they will move the operation once again to an even larger Brooklyn rooftop, at Automotive High School in the heart of Williamsburg.
Such growth raises the question: In a world where nonprofits and independent media organizations face enormous survival odds, how has Rooftop Films managed so well?
“Rooftop has the kind of energy around it that characterized the New York film scene in the 1960s—or at least the closest you can get to it these days,” says Todd Rohal, a Washington, DC-based filmmaker whose short films have screened at numerous festivals, including Rooftop, Slamdance, and SXSW. “The films are not all overly raunchy or dirty, and it’s not the in-your-face, beyond-the-point web-toons stuff that the modern underground fests are filled with. Rather, it’s an atmosphere of not knowing what to expect next and feeling like you’re squatting in this property watching films that might never be seen anywhere else. Rooftop is that last little bit of the old New York underground, a venue out in the middle of the nowhere end of Brooklyn that allows you to see films that are either on the verge of making it big or the verge of disappearing forever.”
Not surprisingly, this echoes Rosenberg’s initial vision for the organization. “I think a lot of film festivals start with people thinking they’re going to get these people to sponsor it, and these people to host it, and this will be the theme, and this will be the idea, and this is the 5-year plan.” Rosenberg says. “And once they’ve got all that they try to see the films. I was really the opposite. I’d seen a lot of great films that I didn’t think a lot of people were seeing. So I thought it would be a great way to get people to come and see them, to have this gimmick of doing it outside, because everyone in New York wants to be outside in the summer.”
Everyone might be a stretch, but Rooftop Films did welcome 3,000 guests in 2003, and in 2004, 4,000 turned out. The reception could reflect Brooklyn’s relatively newfound status as a hot nightspot, even for Manhattanites, as much as the quality of Rooftop’s programming. And this poses a challenge for the organization: to separate itself from the so-called “hipster invasion” that is rapidly transforming Brooklyn’s working-class and ethnic neighborhoods into a playground for rich 20-somethings.
“We’ve had audiences that are very ethnically mixed,” Nuxoll says. “But the truth of it is, whether or not our programming caters to white audiences, our audiences are still very much dominated by Caucasians. We definitely have a disproportionate number of people [under 40] who’ve gotten a college education or graduate degrees. And we’ve worked really hard over the years to get communities more involved with the organization—particularly neighborhoods in which we’re showing films. And we’ve been successful in various ways, but it’s not easy to shake that perception. I think a lot of filmmakers feel more comfortable submitting to festivals that they think are run by people with backgrounds like their own.”
With that in mind, Rooftop has made a priority of programming more films by women, people of color, and international filmmakers. But the emphasis remains unequivocally on quality and on providing a venue for promising filmmakers—whoever and wherever they might be.
“I think the best films that we show are the best films there are,” says Sarah Palmer, the organization’s festival director, zine editor, and another Vassar grad (1999). “And I think our films are particular in the way that we curate them. We have regional programs and other sorts of programs, like home movies, and we always think about how our unique venues are matched with our unique programs.”
To create each program, Palmer, Nuxoll, and Rosenberg take turns viewing every film submitted to the festival. After viewing a given film, they enter its title and filmmaker into a database along with a rating: “Pass,” “Consider Low,” “Consider High,” or “Recommend.” Then they start looking for thematic patterns, and potential programs begin to emerge.
“If we see that we’ve got 25 films with a “Recommend” or “Consider High” rating from Texas, then we think, okay, maybe we should put together a program of just Texas stuff,” Nuxoll says. Other categories might include world documentaries, women- or youth-made films, and films from the Midwest. Some categories, such as home movies and New York films, have recurred so often that they’re in annual rotation. And certain years, time-specific themes emerge. In 2004, so many politically-oriented films were submitted that the Rooftop team compiled them onto a DVD and even traveled to several swing-states to help get out the vote. “But we always do at least two programs that are not organized around any specific theme,” Nuxoll says, “other than that we like them.”
Each program lasts between 80 minutes and two hours, and consists of approximately six to 17 films. Nuxoll says they try to incorporate one or two longer films to avoid what he recounts as “one of the most difficult watching experiences” he’s ever had. “These guys put together an evening of all one-minute films,” he says. “It was just a one-hour program, but it was 60 one-minute films—and it was maddening. It was like watching commercials.”
Another cause for Rooftop’s success appears to be its support of not only great films, but of the people who make them. One dollar of every ticket sale goes into a grant for filmmakers who have screened work at Rooftop and who submit a simple application.
“It’s a way of giving back to the filmmaking community, of fostering production, and really coming up with a network and a creative way of helping true independent filmmakers,” Rosenberg says. “They’re not people working through Miramax, but people who are really working on their own films. And we want to get their films made.”
One of Rooftop’s regulars, Steve Collins, screened his short film The Plumber during an “open projector” portion of Rooftop’s inaugural night after getting turned away by over 30 other festivals. “Mark never rejected me, so I like this relationship better than my relationship with programmers at Sundance, Berlin, etc.,” he says. Rooftop even donated tape stock to Collins for his graduate thesis at the University of Texas, Austin, and provided him with something every filmmaker wants: an audience.
In the future, Rooftop’s three principals plan to expand its production arm and become a central resource for the
filmmaking community. They also intend to sell programming packages for a small fee to fledgling microcinemas that lack
the contacts and resources they have spent the past eight years acquiring. And of course, like so many nonprofit arts org-
anizations, they would love to hire more help. “Mark, Dan, and I are the heads of this great film festival,” Palmer says, “but
we’re also the ones unloading the U-Haul at three in the morning. It would be great for certain things to run themselves a
At the end of the day—or week, as it were—all their hard work pays off in the simplest way. “I’m most happy when I stand at the back of the show with Mark and Dan, and we watch an audience enraptured by a film on a summer night in New York,” Palmer says. “When we watch people watching films that they’ve never imagined before and enjoying them, and watch filmmakers meeting people after a show, that’s really what’s most fulfilling. Seeing people connect in this realm of film.”