Small Business Spotlight: Rooftop Films Brings Art & Community Together Under The Stars

June 19, 2018 - 10:06 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Creating a true experience from your product is not easy, but Joe Connolly's guest on this week's Small Business Spotlight has done just that.

The now-famous non-for-profit Rooftop Films first started with a small screening among friends on the top of an East Village apartment building in 1997.

Co-founder Dan Nuxoll says when he and his Vassar College buddy Mark Elijah Rosenberg moved back down to the city after graduation they didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives, but they knew it would involve the arts.

One day, Rosenberg decided he wanted to put together a screening of short films that might not otherwise reach an audience in the city.

"We didn't have the money to rent a movie theater, but we did have access to Mark's rooftop," Nuxoll said. "We just went up there, borrowed a sound system from his brother who was in a punk rock band, borrowed a 16-mm projector from a friend, hung a sheet on the wall on the roof, invited a bunch of people up... and that was the very first screening."

"And it wasn't done for money, it was really just done to share art that we thought was really interesting with an audience," Nuxoll added.

Taking that idea of bringing the community together through a shared love for the arts, Rooftop Films was born. It has since grown into a booming business, hosting three or four screenings a night during peak season and partnering with Sundance Film Festival as well as various cultural institutions across the city.

Rooftop Films was founded as a non-profit.

"It meant a lot to us to try to remove as much as possible the profit motive from what we were doing," Nuxoll said. "We believed in the artwork that we were showing."

Now some events are sponsor-supported and the organization also does some for-hire work that's used to subsidize their popular summer series and independent film screenings. 

"Those clients can be all different but sometimes they're real estate companies that want to put an event on their own roof, sometimes they're corporate sponsors or broadcasters that want to do a special premiere. All of those different revenue sources from corporations and sponsors go into the pool to help subsidize everything else that we're doing," Nuxoll said. "Some of the screenings are free, some of them are ticketed but it's a really diverse income stream that we've created which combines with -- like any other non-profit -- with grants and donations to keep us in business and keep doing events that we think are really special."

In the end it's all about the community.

"Our core target audience is the public at large," Nuxoll said. "We always wanted to make events that were accessible to all different types of New Yorkers. So we do screenings in all different neighborhoods. We do screenings out in Coney Island, we'll do screenings out in Sunset Park. We try to whenever possible do screenings in less affluent areas -- areas that might not have as many cultural events going on in their community as some places like the East Village or Midtown Manhattan."

Their summer series features dozens of outdoor screenings all throughout the city in all five boroughs, usually on rooftops.

"The thing that's great about it is it has a sense of being somewhat private, you're a little bit removed, you have a little bit of space from the rush of the city and the crowds but at the same time you're not really removed from the city you're still very much a part of it," Nuxoll said. "And as we moved along and we sort of developed what we were trying to achieve we realized just how special that was for a film screening."

City rooftops serve as a particularly fitting location for their yearly program called New York Non Fiction, featuring short films about everyday New Yorkers.

"You can show that movie in a movie theater and it would be great, like those films would play great anywhere. But showing it on a rooftop surrounded by the city -- hearing the ambulance going by, one of the elevated trains going by in the background -- those little things change the way not just the way you see those films but when you come out of that screening it changes the way you think about your city and it changes the way you think about the rooftop that you're in, the building you're on top of, all of those things are transformed and that's an enhanced event, an enhanced experience that I don't think you can really create in a movie theater," Nuxoll said.

The audience experience is key when choosing screening locations.

"We program with that in mind. Every time we pick a film, we pick films that we think for various reasons are going to not only work outdoors but work at particular outdoor location that we're going to screen them in," Nuxoll said.

For instance, they'll be hosting a series of movies set in the 19th Century at Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery.

Screenings are also held in other locations such as parks and beaches -- which can sometimes come with some unexpected challenges thanks to the weather.

"No matter what your set up is, no matter how many events you're doing, if you're doing outdoor events -- film or otherwise -- you've gotta be ready to improvise," Nuxoll said. "The weather is a factor, things are going to happen. So right from the beginning, if you're gong to ever do an event you have to be ready to change the plan when required."

Nuxoll said when they first started out, if a thunderstorm was rolling through he'd get stressed out but all it takes is a well laid out plan to make sure everything goes smoothly, no matter what Mother Nature has in mind.

"We've got our procedures in place, we know what to do and we can quickly cover up, make sure everything is safe and prepare for whatever might be coming through," Nucoll said. "That's true of weather but it's true of any other contingency that you might have to deal with with all these events. You just get used to staying in an improvisational mindset and you have three or four backup plans for any contingency and one of them is going to work."

The strategy has so far been successful.

"We've actually never canceled a screening for technical difficulties which is kind of incredible considering we do outdoor screenings," Nuxoll said. "I know a lot of film festivals that only do indoor film screenings and they might cancel one or two a year. And we've always managed to pull it off."