By Brian Brooks | Indiewire June 16, 2009 at 8:51AM
If starting a locally brewed film series or event is anyone's goal, most likely a thing or two (or more) can be learned or even copied from New York's Rooftop Films In its 13 years, the ongoing series, which typically runs from late Spring to mid September. "I'm a native New Yorker, and I liked hanging out on rooftops and I had friends with films and I thought people would come out if [they screened] in a cool location," said Rooftop Artistic Director and founder Mark Elijah Rosenberg. Since then, the series has grown, taking on an equal number of feature-length offerings as well as its staple shorts, and catering to its growing audience.
Today, the screenings will average 500 people or more. "We expect 25,000 to attend over the summer," said Rosenberg. "Our Lower East Side screenings will top 1000." Still, Rooftop does not confine itself to the generally "hipper" parts of the city, branching out and taking with it films that will appeal to a cross-section of tastes. This year, Rooftop will host screenings in the Bronx, with fare catering to its locale.
"The goal of Rooftop is to have a diverse audience," Rosenberg said Thursday in a conversation with indieWIRE. "There are industry people [who attend], but also people who never see an independent film and those in the middle ground. Age and gender and race, it's diverse. We'll do screenings in the Bronx in August, but also screenings in Williamsburg which has a hipster vibe."
In its decade-plus run, Rooftop has veered into "film festival" territory, becoming a regional launch platform for films, such as Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein's doc, "No Impact Man," which had its New York premiere last Thursday night at Rooftop. Beyond the core screenings, Rooftop tries to engage its audience with the film - in this particular event, inviting eight environmental groups to set up a presence before and after the screening with an "Eco-Carnival," encouraging audiences to get involved. The doc will be released by Oscilloscope. "We're working with the environmental groups as well as the film's distributor for word-of-mouth. This will hopefully help the success of the film in New York, and working with the groups at the Eco Carnival will engage the audience in a more meaningful way," commented Rosenberg.
Marketing itself through non-conventional methods - basically hitting the pavement - was an early principle for Rooftop in growing its reach and audience. "The core of our outreach is still grassroots. We're in an era where right now, major companies want to do grassroots marketing. When we first started out, we didn't have money at all for commercials and subways etc., so we had to use grassroots marketing and partnering with different groups. That's how we always did it out of necessity before, but now people seem to like this, people don't always trust [traditional] marketing."
Of note to this year's lineup, Rooftop received over 3,000 submissions for consideration. Along with premieres of unknown films, Rooftop has, like "No Impact Man," a dose of features that have made their way through the film circuit, including Lynn Shelton's "Humpday" (Magnolia Pictures). The event will also host the U.S. debut of Fabio Wuytack's doc "Persona Non Grata," which took prizes at last year's International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival earlier this year. The film, which follows the story of the director's father and his life as a left-wing missionary in Venezuela, received funding from Rooftop.
"We're reaching out to distributors and programmers who might be interested in Latin cinema... The [series] is one aspect of our organization. Rooftop gives grants, including funds for youth education. For artists and non-profits we make our equipment available." Rooftop's longest running grant, called simply enough 'The Rooftop Filmmakers Grant' is comprised in part from $1 for each ticket sold to screenings and $1 from filmmaker submissions. Other funding programs include the Chicken and Egg fund, which gives $6 thousand for women filmmakers.
July's screening of "Persona Non Grata" will be the event's first in a new partnership the group is forming with the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which will again reinforce Rooftop's focus on emerging filmmakers. Additionally, the partnership will emphasize international work, with filmmakers traveling with their work to Rooftop.
Other initiatives by Rooftop include an expansion of the model to other cities in the U.S. Rooftop has taken the event for one-off dates in San Francisco and some Midwestern cities, but Rosenberg hopes a grassroot creation of Rooftop can sprout in the Bay Area as well as Austin, TX, L.A., and Philadelphia - economic condition permitting. "Our model is to work with existing people in the arts in those cities," said Rosenberg. "We want it to be a community supported and community invested program, reflecting local tastes in film and the art scene."
And coming up next weekend at Rooftop are sneak previews of "Winnebago Man" at Open Road Rooftop on Manhattan's Lower East Side and "New Muslim Cool" on the roof of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. [For more information, visit Rooftop's website.]