Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

Film festivals tend to feel like cattle calls, except that, in the worlds of movie coverage and insatiable cinephile fandom, the impending slaughter is replaced by the unknown quality of the spotlighted movies. Anyone who’s ever endured half-baked, overly pretentious indie flicks centered upon failed marriages or existential balderdash knows just how excruciating the experience can be, especially since the congestion leading into the theater consisted of long lines full of exhausted and possibly irritable folks in similar proverbial shoes. But, still, the excitement of consuming a plethora of never-seen-before movies in the span of a few days is too enticing to pass over—thus, cinema buffs have no choice but to submit to the irritations.

Unless they’re participating in New York City’s unique, summer-long Rooftop Films series, that is. Unconventional in the best possible ways, the borough-spanning lineup of outdoor events, kicks off its 15th year of independent movies tonight in the Lower East Side, on the Open Road Rooftop (located at 350 Grand Street). On the bill tonight is This is What We Mean by Short Films, a collection of ten shorts all clocking in at less than ten minutes a pop, including a timely battle cry against the 1% (Mark Read's #Occupy Bat Signal for the 99%); A Brief History of John Baldessari, a mini-doc from Henry Joost, one-half of the duo behind Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3; and 9:21:25, about a wealthy South African man's journey into outer space.

As Rooftop virgins will discover in the LES this evening, the programmers seemingly have an answer for every one of a festival regular’s complaints. It’s too stuffy inside the overcrowded screening locales stuffed with journalists, ticket-buyers, and VIP industry folks? No worries, the Rooftop approach allows for fresh air to fill one’s lungs as a film plays on a large screen surrounded by graffiti artwork and the New York skyline. It’s impossible to dwell on a movie’s intricacies, mysteries, and/or contextual themes if you immediately have to get in line for another film minutes after the credits roll? Don’t fret—limited to one feature per weekend, Rooftop encourages the digestion of the respective weekend’s picture, allowing for a full seven days before it’s onto the next one.

Beginning tonight and running through the end of August, the non-profit organization offers an impressive slate of 40 programs, all presented with the sole purpose of promoting innovative, “underground” indie films to Big Apples residents and visitors who’d potentially otherwise overlook them.

Thus, it makes perfect sense that the festival began as a way for an inconspicuous New Yorker to showcase his own work and his friends’ projects. Back in July of 1997, recent Vassar College graduate, and native of Manhattan, Mark Elijah Rosenberg decided to rig a 16MM projector, a massive white sheet, and dingy sound equipment atop the roof of his 14th Street apartment building for a renegade night of movies. Scheduled for a Friday, freak weather conditions led to a pushback of one day, allowing for more time to spread the word and resulting in a triumphant event that drew in hundreds of spectators.

We want to make each screening feel like a real event. You really challenge an audience to see something that, maybe in another setting, they would find uninteresting. - Mark Rosenberg, Founder/Artistic Director

Rosenberg was instantly invigorated; a year later, after his landlord forbid another rooftop endeavor, he teamed up with an old Vassar friend, Queens native Dan Nuxoll, to figure out a way to repeat the success. Along with some buddies from his days at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, Nuxoll had, not long before Rosenberg approached him about the rooftop idea, converted the top floor of the Bushwick, Brooklyn-located McKibbin Street Lofts into the headquarters for a business, Peter’s Car Corp.; with the McKibbin landlord’s permission, he and Rosenberg held the cinema night’s 1998 edition in Bushwick, which lasted up to five years, to the point when the McKibbin landlord withdrew his permission and forced Rooftop's organizers to come up with a new plan.

Out of necessity, the team developed relationships with venue owners throughout New York City, specifically in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. “That changed the way we thought about the organization,” says Nuxoll, Rooftop’s Program Director. “Instead of it being a single location that people came to, we started thinking of ourselves as a festival that moved around and brought unique films to communities. There was something nice about this idea that the films themselves should really reflect the community and the neighborhood in which we’re showing them, and that helped to shape our programming, and, in turn, shape our overall mission for the organization.”

A mission statement envisioned with levelheadedness and a firm grasp on reality. “I see a lot of film festivals that come out in their first year and they want to have top sponsors and reviews in The New York Times, and they forget to just figure out how to put on a fun event,” says Rosenberg, who, in addition to founding Rooftop Films, acts as Artistic Director. “At first, we didn’t really worry about trying to get attention from media or sponsors or anything—we just wanted to put on a good show and find good films and filmmakers to work with. I think that model of keeping it low-key really helped us grow the organization in a way that’s been sustainable.”

This year, the locations range from the Lower East Side’s Open Road Rooftop (on Grand Street) to Long Island City’s Socrates Sculpture Park (on Vernon Boulevard) and Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. “We’re always looking for ways to creatively go beyond the normal film-watching experience, whether they’re used to watching films in a movie theater or at home on their phone or computer,” adds Rosenberg. “We want to make each screening feel like a real event. You really challenge an audience to see something that, maybe in another setting, they would find uninteresting, or they wouldn’t give it the time when watching it home alone online. That way, I think, we can show more innovative and daring films.”

Now 15 years strong, Rooftop Films has evolved into one of the country’s most respected programs for lo-fi cinema. Though it may not have the nationwide recognition of, say, Sundance or SXSW, Rooftop annually shows many of the same films as those larger fests; most importantly, though, it does so with a much more personal experience for both the filmmakers and audience members. Rosenberg, Nuxoll, and the rest of Rooftop’s team—which includes four other year-round staffers and upward of 15-20 summertime additions—attend every screening, kick it with the filmmakers and viewers in even-ground settings, and collectively create an interactive experience.

“When a filmmaker screens a film at another festival, they might see the festival director for 15 seconds as he runs around from screening to screening,” says Nuxoll. “But with Rooftop, when filmmakers come in from out of town, they get to spend time with us, and they get to meet everybody. They get to know the staff, and, similarly, the staff really gets to know the filmmakers and develop personal connections to each film. That goes a long way and makes up for some really long days of work.”

By showing movies outdoors and offering a full-on experience, we're drawing people in; as a result, that’s exposing them to these independent movies that really deserve the attention. - Dan Nuxoll, Program Director

The benefits for the moviemakers extend beyond mere pleasantries and good times, though. Every year, the organizers award a Rooftop Filmmakers Fundto one lucky veteran, selected after reading through pitches from directors—all 2,000-plus eligible shotcallers who’ve shown films at Rooftop over the last 15 years—about their desired next projects that are in need of financial assistance. Taking $1 from each ticket purchased throughout the entire summer’s worth of screenings and events, a panel of staff and board members then choose the recipient. “That’s something that, from the filmmakers’ perspective, really makes them feel like they’re part of a community,” says Rosenberg. “Rather than just awarding their past work, we’re also helping them move forward in their careers and make their next film.” According to the organization’s official website, in 2010 and 2011 combined, the Rooftop Filmmakers Fund doled out over $12,000 in cash and $25,000 in services and equipment grants.

The residual effects of the Rooftop Filmmakers Fund aren’t limited to just the victorious creative minds. “For the audience, it’s something that makes them feel really special to know that they’re helping these people continue their careers,” adds Rosenberg. “Every time a film plays from a filmmaker who won the grant from our fund, the audience is always really excited to know that their dollar went to help get the film made.”

Several of the ensuing success stories have been as prestigious as they’ve been fruitful. In fact, winners of the fund from recent years have gone on to make legitimately award-worthy fare. For example, at the Academy Awards this past February, Rooftop vet Lucy Walker’s The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, a byproduct of the Filmmakers Fund, was nominated for Best Documentary (Short Subject). It’s on the Rooftop schedule for Saturday, July 28th, and set to show on the roof of Brooklyn’s Old American Can Factory.

And then there’s s first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, another Filmmakers Fund beneficiary, took home the top jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Beasts of the Southern Wild, having quickly been picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight following Sundance, is set for a limited theatrical release starting on June 27th; in the minds of many in-the-know film critics and talking heads, Zeitlin’s universally praised debut is primed to be the summer’s biggest independent breakout, as well as a potential end-of-the-year awards season player.

Will any of Rooftop’s 2012 filmmakers go on to similarly grandiose achievements? There’s certainly tons of promise within the lot. This year’s roster of new, independent films includes several key highlights. Fresh off of an Audience Award conquest at March’s SXSW Film Festival, actor-turned-director Matthew Lillard’s profound teen comedy Fat Kid Rules the World is certainly one to watch, as is Amy Seimetz’s pitch-dark drama Sun Don’t Shine, another SXSW alum about a couple embarking on a road trip with a body in their trunk. Nuxoll, for his part, is especially enthusiastic about the documentaries in tow, namely the boxing-themed China Heavyweight, from director Yung Chang, and Emmanuel GrasBovines, which, yes, is simply about cows in their natural habitat.

Nuxoll feels that Bovines should be a top priority for those gearing up for Rooftop. “It’s really just getting a feel for the internal life of a cow, and I think that’s a film that is a really magnificent achievement in filmmaking, but it hasn’t played hardly anywhere in the U.S. at all,” he says. “We’re really excited about sharing that one with audiences. It’s really about how cows experience the world, rather than showing what’s done to them in some way. It gives you a sense of what it might be like to be a cow, or at least as much as could possibly be communicated via the medium of film.”

An intimate movie about cows screening in Brooklyn (above the Old American Can Factory, on 3rd Street, on Thursday, May 31st)? Not exactly what we meant earlier with that whole “cattle call” parallel. But that’s a prime exemplar of what makes the Rooftop Films series so one-of-a-kind.

“Imagine how many people in Brooklyn would be excited to see a mostly dialogue-free film about cows if it were playing at the local movie theater?” reasons Nuxoll. “What Rooftop does, and what I think is most important for setting us apart from the other film festivals and organizations out there, is that we try to make the experience of watching a movie so fresh that people are excited to see any kind of movie. By showing movies outdoors and offering a full-on experience, we're drawing people in; as a result, that’s exposing them to these independent movies that really deserve the attention.”

Rosenberg, for his part, gets more to-the-point: “The idea is always just to continue to show great films outdoors, because we think it’s a unique way to get people to experience cinema in ways that are fun and exciting.”

For more information: Rooftop Films

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

***Click through for our 10 most anticipated movies playing in this year's Rooftop Films series

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