Rooftop Films Returns for Another Summer of Outdoor Screenings

$30 Student Pass Gets Over Fifty Nights of Screenings


Audience members attend one of the 50 days of film screenings at New York City’s Rooftop Film Festival. (Kyle Morrison/The Observer)

Published: May 5, 2011

In 1997 a young Vassar graduate named Mark Rosenberg set up a 16mm projector on his rooftop in Manhattan and screened short films for some 300 strangers. The immediate result was eviction, but that night, as well as showing work by himself and his friends, Rosenberg screened a short film by a young man named Stephen Collins, who had arrived with a reel and no expectations.

Although at the time it was largely an aimless gesture, Rosenberg was taking the first step towards what has now been a 14 year career vigorously supporting independent filmmakers. This year he will show another short by Collins, but through his non-profit organization Rooftop Films, which has grown to be a prominent force of promotion for independent cinema in New York City.

“I wasn’t sure I would do another screening after 1997,” Rosenberg said, “but I’ve always thought vainly, from a historical perspective that what Rooftop does will be remembered.”

Fifteen years ago Rosenberg was worried about his bootleg screenings remaining underground or inciting the ire of the city’s agencies and institutions. Now he and a staff of six work closely with them every year in order to host over 50 days of film screenings from May to August in outdoor locations around the city.

“I always had a vision of it,” Rosenberg said, “but that vision became clearer at a few different milestones.” One such milestone was his partnering with Dan Nuxoll, a fellow Vassar graduate who would eventually become Program Director. After his eviction, Rosenberg took his idea out to Brooklyn, where Nuxoll was renting a flat.

They screened only one night of films in 1998, but the next year it was five. Since then, Rooftop has seen a remarkably successful and continued ascent into New York’s independent film scene.

“For me, the biggest thrill is finding a film that hasn’t been screened anywhere else,” Rosenberg said of the programming process. Every year he and Nuxoll receive over 2000 film submissions, most sent on a writable disc with scribbled sharpie and a brief note. This year the Rooftop Summer Series, comprised of 23 features and 183 shorts, showcases work from 26 different countries.

Since it’s impossible to judge the submissions based on the presentation alone, every film is watched and reviewed by a Rooftop employee. Although time consuming, the reward is a lineup of films radically diverse in subject matter.

With student memberships at 30 dollars, if you’re sticking around the city this summer it doesn’t get much better than 50 days of films screenings for roughly the same price as a tub of popcorn at the local AMC. Otherwise, it’s a 10 dollar admission fee at the door, which gets you a pre-show performance by a local band and usually an open bar after-party as well.

On certain evenings guests will be treated to special events hosted by the films’ directors. Audience members at the documentary film “Fake It So Real” will experience an amateur-wrestling match starring the performers in the film, present alongside director Brian Greene.

It’s this kind of “interaction between audience and art” that Rosenberg considers the foundation of his organization. “There’s so much room for Rooftop to grow,” he said. “I would like to see us expand to other cities…with self-sustaining chapters around the world which can screen a mix of local, national and international films.”

It’s not a far stretch to believe that with their ambition, Rooftop Films could one day see this kind of success. However, when I asked him about the health of independent cinema outside of New York City Rosenberg’s optimistic tone changed for a moment. “The future is dark,” he admitted, “but camera lenses are getting so fast these days…and movies look better under the cover of night anyway.”