Fifteen years ago, film buff John Wyatt concocted a simple plan that has forever impacted Los Angeles culture.
Then 27-year-old Wyatt, who at the time both worked in an art department and on an independent feature film, was on the hunt for a place to gather the members of his Italian film club (Cinespia) to screen movies. During a visit to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where a friend of the filmmaker’s was employed, he gazed upon the large, open Fairbanks Lawn, surrounded by the tombstones of past Hollywood legends, and thought, “We could screen a movie here, people could have a picnic and we could have a DJ.”
In the decade-and-a-half since the inception of his first Hollywood Forever turnout on July 20, 2002 (Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train), — and L.A.’s inaugural outdoor film screening — Wyatt’s simple idea has grown into a spring- and summer-long event that draws thousands of L.A. locals to 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. annually.
“I felt like it was something the city needed: a place where everyone could get together,” Wyatt said of the inspiration behind it. “I really wanted to share classic films and films that I love.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Wyatt reflects on the past 15 years of Cinespia and discusses the “magic” and “early inspiration” that “carried it through,” how he chooses which films are shown and why he thinks Justin Timberlake, Drew Barrymore and many more A-listers join in on the grassy gathering: “They love films too, just as much as we do.”
How did you come up with the name Cinespia?
I had a film club and just kept the name of the film club. It started at the Italian Film Club and we’d go to different places in the city and watch Italian films. That film club was the first group I invited to the cemetery screening. I was looking for a place for us to screen our own films and a friend of mine worked at the cemetery and I saw the field and I thought, “We could screen a movie here, people could have a picnic and we could have a DJ.” So, the Italian Film Club just became the cemetery screenings and almost right away, just through word of mouth really, — we didn’t do any advertising — people started to get excited about it and to come out to our shows.
How did you decide on Hollywood Forever Cemetery as the location?
The Hollywood Cemetery is so unique in that it has so many people buried there who worked on films in the Golden Age of Hollywood. You’ve got famous directors like John Huston and famous actors like Peter Lorre and then everyone else: all the below-the-line people who worked on films — all the character actors and costumers and makeup artists. It was a place at that time where they would buy plots. It’s got this beautiful architecture and you’re next to the Paramount lot. Then this movie comes on the screen with someone who is buried 80 feet away from you and it changes the experience and it changes how you’re thinking about the film.
What stage of life were you in when you started Cinespia?
I was 27 and I was working as an art department person, doing different stuff: a lot of fashion shoots and things like that and working very hard. I was doing an independent feature and at the same time, on the side, I was arranging these screenings and putting them on. We didn’t always break even. A couple of them I paid to do, but I really felt strongly about it. I felt like it was something special. I felt like it was something the city needed: a place where everyone could get together. I really wanted to share classic films and films that I love. I wanted people to see them and share in the enthusiasm I have for some of these great movies. It just sort of took off from there.
At that time, what was your life goal?
I don’t know if I was thinking so much about a career in terms of the cemetery screenings. I’m just really passionate about film, maybe too passionate — maybe crazy. I just really love movies. At that time, I thought maybe I would do production design in the movies. I worked on a couple of independent features and realized that wasn’t the department for me. After all this time…I think my best role would be as a producer. Bringing something to the screen and arranging it, I think that’s sort of where it ended up in terms of my skill set and doing this and understanding what audiences want, but also having to get my hands dirty with the logistics of making something happen. My experience running an art department helped me run better events.
At your very first screening, do you remember what played and how many people showed up?
I played Strangers on a Train by Alfred Hitchcock and my guess is about 300 or 400 people showed up, which was bigger than my film club at the time. My film club at the time, we would get maybe 80 or 100 people out to our events. Word got out a little bit on that first one. When the movie ended and everyone was cheering — it was a very exciting ending, that movie — I realized, “oh wow, this really could be popular. This works.” I went back to the cemetery and said, “we need to do more of these. It’s important.”
How long did it take for it to gain momentum and grow?
By the third screening, we were getting over 1,000 people. It happened really fast. We worked hard to improve it right away and make it a better experience. I would just put everything back into these screenings. But, it was years before people knew what I was talking about in the public. It was really almost kind of a secret. Doing things by word of mouth is really miraculous because you get this set of like-minded people and their friends and this organic group that builds upon itself in a gentle way. It really was a magical moment and it inspired me. I think that early inspiration was what I carried it through.
Now at 15 years, we’re still doing it and people still love it. Of course it’s evolved and changed, but many things are the same. The basis is the same and that magic never really went away. Now if I mention it to people, they’ve heard of it, unless they’re from the west side. But in general, most everybody has heard of it and that’s great; that took me many years. When you hear about it, it sounds like a really strange thing. But once people go, they love it. They just need to see it. Now, at this point, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people go. It’s so much more well-known and people understand what it is. It was hard to convince people to come down that hadn’t been or didn’t know someone that had been. You could just say that the whole thing was just built on a reputation for showing really great movies and doing really good, well-orchestrated events. It had great DJs from the beginning. All those things together made it as popular as it is today. This is before Facebook, before Twitter and in the early days of email.
When I started, I had these postcards where the front was a still from the movie and on the back I’d put a little description and the person’s address and mail it. It was a snail mail list; that’s how we did it for years. It was very difficult to find a still, get it printed, get to the post office and mail hundreds and hundreds of these things. It was a smaller circle then, but a very dedicated circle.
How do you decide which films are chosen each year?
I have a formula and it’s a little hard to describe, but I really look for films that will first, really entertain an audience and grab their attention. So many classic films can do that — they feel fresh and modern even if they’re 70 or 80 years old. More recent films that have become classic because they’re so well made, they ring so true that they become instantly part of the cannon. I really try to find films that people will walk away feeling fulfilled, feeling like they really saw something great and were entertained. I also want to challenge them a little, or have them discover something new; maybe try a movie they’ve never seen. Last year we showed the 30th film It happened One Night, which is 80 years old. A lot of our audience are millennials … It’s really exciting for us for these kids to discover this. We hope it inspires people, not only to see more of these films, but to do better at what they do. And for all the people out there making films, we’re hoping that this will encourage them to make films that are really great.
Are there any famous faces that you remember attended Cinespia?
Yes, definitely! This is LA. and a lot of celebrities live here and they love cemetery screenings too. We’ve had a lot of interesting people come through, which is great. I was pretty surprised one day to see Jessica Biel standing in the line way down the sidewalk — we get a really big line — and we said, “Hi, do you want to come in?” Justin Timberlake came and met her and that was a surprise. It was really tight to have them as our guests and they really enjoyed the movie. We’ve had great regulars over the years, all kinds of folks. Everyone from the Beckhams to Emma Stone to Josh Hutcherson to Aaron Paul. Drew Barrymore has been a regular… So many people because they live here. They love films too, just as much as we do. It’s the one common denominator of everyone on that field that we all like movies. When it’s 4,000 people and you’re laughing and crying along with them, you’re no longer a starlet, a barista or a famous director — you’re just a movie lover just like the rest of us. I really think that’s part of the magic.
How do you feel that Cinespia has impacted Los Angeles and the culture here?
I think it’s impacted it in many ways, one being that there were no outdoor films being shown in Los Angeles when I started. We were the first outdoor screenings in Los Angeles and the only outdoor screenings in Los Angeles for 10 years. We introduced literally hundreds of thousands of people to classic films and I think that has a big impact. I hope it has a big impact. But we also created a social space that wasn’t there before. It was a place where everyone could get together, sit in the grass, meet new people and be together somewhere; just be in the public arena enjoying films. There was nothing like that. In L.A., especially, we really needed that. I really feel like that comradery affected people and it changed the city in a certain way — maybe a better way — but it changed things to have this place. I’ve met agents who say, “We used to go in high school,” and I’ve met so many people who’ve said, “we had our first date there and now we’re married.” So many people have had that as part of their life: their social life and part of their romantic life.
What hopes and plans do you have for the next 15 years of Cinespia?
In general, we want to do more. We want to be in more places around the city and bring films to more people. We want to continue to inspire another generation of Angelenos who love movies.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Screening Dates:
May 14, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
May 21, Silence of the Lambs
May 22, The Path season finale
May 28, Singin‘ in the Rain
May 29, E.T.
June 4, Mean Girls
June 11, To Catch A Thief
June 18, Goodfellas
June 25, Raising Arizona
July 2, Purple Rain
July 3, Grease
July 9, The Sandlot
July 16, Kill Bill Vo. 1 & 2
July 23, The Muppets Movie (1979)
July 30, Sabrina (1954)