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America's best outdoor movie theaters

Image: Film Night, San Francisco and Marin County
The group behind Film Night got its start 20 years ago in Marin County, Calif., where it screens films that tend to be more family friendly. The San Francisco lineup mixes new releases with classics.
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The hush that falls over those gathered at Hollywood Forever Cemetery isn’t just a sign of respect for the dead. On select evenings, it signals that a blockbuster movie screening is beginning.

The cemetery movie series is an unexpected-yet-perfect way to pay tribute to legends like Rudolph Valentino and John Huston. “You’re literally a few feet from someone who has worked on these movies,” says Cinespia series cofounder John Wyatt.

Even as drive-ins have declined, a new breed of outdoor movie theaters has been expanding across the U.S., cropping up in cemeteries, parks, even on rooftops. It’s become a modern summer ritual to head to an open-air theater and stake out a prime viewing spot before sunset — whether for a date night or girls’ night. Often the appeal is less about the movie itself than about the chance to get together and enjoy a beautiful setting on a balmy evening.

“A huge majority of the audience is coming for the experience,” says Ethan Lercher of the Bryant Park Corporation, which runs the free HBO Bryant Park film festival in New York City. “The whole idea is that you talk to your neighbors.”

For serious movie buffs, an outdoor theater provides the rare opportunity to watch a classic on a big screen. Unlike cookie-cutter multiplexes, these theaters have a nostalgic allure that recalls the 1960s, when America’s love affair with the movies was still a budding romance. “These outdoor screenings are reminiscent of the drive-ins that baby boomers grew up with,” explains Tom Boss, who cofounded the Bay Area’s Film Night. In Minneapolis, the Summer Music & Movies program travels back even further to the earliest days of the silver screen, presenting silent films with a live musical accompaniment.

But outdoor movie screenings aren’t just about old-time Hollywood. They can be forward-looking and bring fresh life to city neighborhoods. The NoMa SummerScreen festival launched in 2008 as part of a development and revitalization initiative in D.C., complete with trendy barbecue and gelato trucks. Each season follows a theme, and 2011 will represents trains through films ranging from "Some Like It Hot" to "Slumdog Millionaire."

It just wouldn’t be summer without the thrills of a Hollywood hit combined with the pleasure of soaking up the outdoors at one of these alfresco movie theaters.

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