Catching a classic movie at Hollywood Forever Cemetery is more than a cool thing to do in L.A.; it’s a bonafide cultural experience that reflects a lot about what makes our city special, from our wonderful weather to the mythic movie spirit of Hollywood’s past (and present). This season Cinespia – the popular gathering that presents movies on the famed site’s Fairbanks Lawn – is celebrating two decades since it first brought cinephiles together to not just watch, but truly celebrate, great films. As the minds behind it tell us, it’s come full circle in a lot of ways.
“It’s become this multi-generational thing, and for me personally, it’s really joyful,” says creator John Wyatt via Zoom interview. “I love it when people come up to me and tell me these stories and share their memories. People have met there, proposed there and later bought their kids there. It’s personally fulfilling to know that this event has meant so much to people.”
Cinespia (which gets its name melding the Italian prefix “cine” for movies, with spia, “to observe”) began as an informal get-together, planned by Wyatt and some friends he was in a film club with. The first film they ever showed was Strangers on a Train by Alfred Hitchcock, and there were less than 100 in attendance. “I had no idea if anyone was going to come at all,” Wyatt recalls. “So I’m setting it up and just wondering if it would be a dud, and then all these people just showed up. It was just such a blast and the audience was screaming and laughing and cheering.”
In terms of media attention, Wyatt says the first event got a tiny blurb in the print edition of this publication, and that was it. But the interest was there, and it just kept growing by word of mouth. “It was so great that I knew we’d have to keep doing them,” he shares. “I didn’t necessarily think it’d be going 20 years later, but I felt a little bit of magic that night.”
There have been many magical nights since, and the event can now attract thousands, growing in more ways than one. After its first successful decade, things evolved and expanded, pivoting towards a more experiential event, complete with big name DJs (Questlove is a frequent guest selector), an artistically rendered photo booth and the promoters encouraging thematic dress-up and cosplay inspired by the films shown. Production designer Alia Penner was a big part of this. Joining the fold around 2011, she designed a poster for the event’s 10th anniversary and ended up staying on as an important part of the creative team.
“I started to come more with my friends, and we would kind of make our own area which consisted of crocheted blankets on the grass… it was nothing more than that. We’d make flower crowns and just have a good time,” says Penner via the Zoom. “Then we developed this photo booth. I was even thinking back the other day about what we used to make compared to what we do now. It’s just so incredible how much it’s grown in 10 years. Now we have this amazing VIP experience and, you know, amazing talent and all these people that want to come, and people like Harry Styles and Billy Eilish [both have been this season] coming. We get to build these incredible sets every week and we have a full team of models and everyone dresses up.”
Penner’s goals in contributing to Cinespia as she tells it, have always been about encouraging people to be a part of the party beyond viewing what’s projected on the screen. “You know, maybe not just wear your cozy clothes, but get into it, dressing up for it. Now we get everything from ball gowns to full-on costumes,” she says.
The interactive energy is on full display on a recent summer night when Cinespia presents what some might call the ultimate nostalgic screen choice: The Wizard of Oz. There’s no place like home, especially if home is where Old Hollywood rests. With both Judy Garland and Toto buried at Forever, there really was no better place to see the colorful classic.
We’ve been to Cinespia dozens of times over the last 20 years, but it’d been a while and after last season’s cancellations due to COVID-19, we’re happy to see that regulars are still a dedicated bunch at the Oz screening. Standing in line for hours outside at the Santa Monica Blvd. entrance, hauling blankets and lawn chairs, plus wine, water, snacks and even full-on fancy dinner spreads that require lugging a mini table for, some groups make it a glamping-style picnic. The crowd is clothed in Oz nods of varying levels – gals in pigtails, blue gingham frocks and red glitter shoes, assorted lion onesies and scarecrow hats; some even tow their own real live Toto (dogs are allowed at the event if they are leashed).
Food is unwrapped and passed around, as DJ Daisy O’Dell spins classic cuts conjuring fantasy, witches, rainbows and of course, lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) as the sun sets and golden California hues fade into a contrasting prism of multi-colored lights (projected rainbow lasers) floating above the crowd. Then a special guest takes the mic to intro the film. This evening, it’s producer/writer/actress Lena Waithe, who talks about the significance of not just the movie, but of the experience of Cinespia itself. It’s not the first time Waithe has spoken at the event, and she clearly has a lot of love for it. She even featured a Cinespia scene on her new BET show Twenties.
The event has been featured on quite a few TV shows over the years in fact, cementing its cultural significance. “We’ve seen lots of portrayals in TV and in movies and some people really get it wrong, but others are better. Thankfully The Simpsons take was great. We were watching and I was biting my nails to see if they were going to mock us. They did a little, but it was funny. The kids were playing on their phones at first, but then they watch and they’re suddenly into old movies. That was a high point for us for sure.”
While the thought of screening films on the wall of a mausoleum, amongst gravestones might have sounded a bit macabre to some when the event first started, most found it an inspired idea. Surprisingly, Wyatt says there have never been any concerns or complaints from relatives of the deceased, but that’s probably due to the Cinespia crowd being respectful of the surroundings, avoiding any problems on the property. “It’s not an out-of-control party amongst the graves,” he insists. “The screenings are on the giant lawn, there are roads in-between anywhere where there’s graves. To anyone who’s never been, it sounds strange, but it actually makes a lot of sense as this park in the center of Hollywood.”
Hollywood Forever is the resting place of Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Mickey Rooney, Tyrone Power, Fay Wray, Kim Fowley, Valerie Harper, Chris Cornell, Dee Dee Ramone and Johnny Ramone’s memorial statue (a cenotaph, meaning his remains aren’t actually there). It’s also a gorgeous place to visit, and not just for goth types. With peacocks and feral cats prancing about, ponds big and small, blooming bushes and mini rose gardens, not to mention beautiful plaques, statuary and headstones, it has a fantastical feel that compliments the films – which these days, range from black and white classics to indie faves to blockbuster hits from every decade.
As the anniversary season comes to a conclusion this month, Wyatt and Penner are excited for Cinespia’s next 20 years. Along with holding screenings at other locales (there’s an additional screening of School of Rock at the L.A. Historic Park on Sept. 17), they say they have “some crazy ideas” for future events, but they aren’t sure if they are economically feasible yet. With Amazon Studios/Prime Video as a presenting sponsor this season, future growth looks pretty good, though.
Right now they’re focused on being back open post-pandemic. As more people look for outdoor amusements, Cinespia – which arguably inspired every other outdoor screening event in Los Angeles at this point – is a solid choice for a quintessential Friday or Saturday night with friends, loved ones and a few thousand film-loving strangers.
“Getting back open, being in more venues, and the reaction of people being able to get together and enjoy these films right now, it’s just pure joy,” Wyatt says. “And we want to bring more of that everywhere around L.A.”
Cinespia at Hollywood Forever, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood. Gates at 6:15 p.m.; movie starts 8:00 p.m. BYOB (and snacks); food and drink also available on-site; all ages. Remaining Cinespia schedule: Some Like It Hot (Sept. 11), School of Rock (Sept. 17 at LA Historic State Park, 1245 N. Spring St.); and Coming to America with fireworks (Sept. 25). More info at cinespia.org