Movies By Moonlight

John Heiney has fond memories of going to outdoor movies as a child. Now, as an adult, he's in charge of putting on an outdoor cinema series for his own community.

"There's just something about throwing down the blanket and seeing a movie, outdoors, at dusk," says Heiney, executive director of the Birmingham Principal Shopping District. "It's kind of a universal appeal."

Now in its seventh year, Birmingham's movie series in Booth Park joins a number of other outdoor cinema series in metro Detroit communities. Novi  and Trenton both offer movies in the park, while Wyandotte's "Flicks On the Bricks" program features movies projected on the wall of the former Wyandotte Theater. Canton offers an annual camp-out and movie night. For those who follow Detroit's urban garden movement, there is the Bike-In Movie Night. Not surprisingly, the films are food-centric, featuring titles like Asparagus!: Stalking the American Life.

Outlining the criteria for selecting Flicks On the Bricks, coordinator Heather Thiede sums up the approach for most of our local outdoor cinema series: "We try to appeal to a family demographic," Thiede says. "So we don't go over a G or PG."

From The Muppets to Despicable Me, families will find clean and contemporary fare at local events. And in some cases, they may even find their personal pick onscreen. Wyandotte and Novi offer residents the opportunity to vote for a viewer's choice film online.

Ann Arbor Summer Festival's Top of the Park also features a viewer's choice element, but it breaks with the contemporary-family formula for a more eclectic cinema series. Selections are voted on by the public and then "massaged" a bit for a "nice balance of comedy and drama," according to festival executive director Robb Woulfe. The result is a series that ranged this year from Breakfast At Tiffany's to Dirty Dancing to The Big Lebowski.

"We're not going to do anything that is going to offend the community," Woulfe says. "But there are lots of great, fun movies out there that have an R rating on them, but, all things considered, are not more offensive than a lot of things you see on TV."

Top of the Park's wide-ranging offerings have also made for some unique moments over the years. Woulfe recalls nervousness before a screening of 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, worried that audiences wouldn't respond well to the silent film, which was to be accompanied by a carillon. "The lawn was just packed, and I was just amazed," he says.

"People were just thrilled. It was a full moon out and the carillon was playing and it was just so romantic." Less romantic was the sudden appearance of a real-life flock of birds overhead during a key moment in a screening of The Birds. "You couldn't plan that," Woulfe says.

According to Woulfe, the Top of the Park series has become "less about a movie-going experience, and more of a social experience," and the same could be said for any of our other outdoor cinema series. Depending on the city, organizers report crowds ranging from just over 100 to well over 1,000, primarily consisting of teens and families with kids, and they arrive to chat, catch up, and enjoy a movie together.

In a truly (and, perhaps, sadly) throwback tradition, Heiney says that most families walk from their homes to Birmingham's movie nights. "It's an opportunity for friends and neighbors to reconnect," he says. "It's kind of a gathering place." The multiplex may have air conditioning going for it, but it's got nothing on this kind of old-fashioned community spirit.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography Except Last Two Images by Myra Klarman Photography
Signup for Email Alerts