Georgetown Sunset Cinema
Georgetown Sunset Cinema Credit: Sam Kittner/Georgetown BID

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

It’s summer 2003. George W. Bush is president. Anthony A. Williams is mayor. And Jesse B Rauch is 21 years old, interning for former Congressman Rob Andrews (D-NJ), and trying to live frugally while making D.C. feel like home. HBO’s free summer movie series Screen on the Green meant the world to him that year. He later co-founded a nonprofit called Friends of Screen on the Green to ground the event in the D.C. community.

“It was so awesome to go to Screen on the Green and just meet people,” he says. “Sitting on the Mall, with the Capitol Building in front and the Washington Monument behind you, it really felt that we could make a difference.”

Screen on the Green took place Monday nights on the National Mall from 1999 to 2015. After HBO nearly cancelled it in 2010, Comcast and Friends of Screen on the Green joined forces with the company to keep it going for a few more summers. The series came to an end five years later.

“I think we would’ve been able to have it continue longer if they’d been a little bit more open to being part of the community, and not just thinking it was some sort of PR thing, which of course it was to them, but I think it meant something more to the people here,” Rauch says. He estimates each movie brought 5,000 to 10,000 people to the Mall.

Over the last decade, plenty of community-based, free or low-cost film series have popped up in and around the city. They’re indoors and outdoors, showing art films and blockbusters, and happening nearly every summer night. “I feel there’s a little bit of Screen on the Green in each of them,” Rauch says.

Here’s a closer look at some of D.C.’s best summer movie-watching options.

Adams Morgan Movie Nights

The theme for this summer’s Adams Morgan Movie Nights series took viewers to the final frontier. 

“It’s the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this summer, so we decided to do a space theme, because there’s tons of movies about space,” says Kristen Barden, the executive director of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District.

On five Tuesdays spanning from May through June, hundreds of people dragged blankets, food, and their friends and families onto the Marie Reed soccer field and watched some of the most iconic films set in space: Armageddon, Alien, Spaceballs, Apollo 11, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Barden estimates the screenings averaged 600 to 700 attendees.

Barden and her team collaborated with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to bring specialized programming before, during, and after the films. Before Armageddon screened, a panel of space experts discussed the facts behind the fiction. On three different nights, the Smithsonian brought out a telescope. Barden says Jupiter’s rings were particularly visible on the night of the E.T. screening. People were lining up to see them through the telescope before, during, and after the movie.

The BID started Adams Morgan Movie Nights in 2014, following renovations to the Marie Reed field that included outdoor amphitheater-style seating. From 2014 through 2018, the series lacked themes but instead had to meet a specific genre formula: something animated or kid-friendly, something retro, something ’80s, something brand-new, and something indie. This blueprint ensured there was something for everyone: cult classic Pretty in Pink one weekend, Pixar’s emotional rollercoaster Inside Out the next.

NoMa Summer Screen

NoMa Business Improvement District President Robin-Eve Jasper jokes that her neighborhood’s outdoor movie series Summer Screen is “NoMadic.”

The themed series has occupied several locations since its inception in 2008. First there was a site at Washington Gateway, then it moved to Union Place for 2009 to 2014. From 2015 to 2017 screenings were at Storey Park, and now they’re at the corner of First Street and Pierce Street NE. Back at the Storey Park field, Jasper says it wasn’t uncommon for 1,000 people to come out for a movie. This summer, they’ve been getting around 300 to 400 attendees.

Alethia Tanner Park, an open green space north of New York Avenue NE, is set to become the permanent home of Summer Screen next year. Jasper says the space will comfortably seat 1,000.

Jasper fondly remembers 2015’s “Dance Dance Dance!” theme, which included Grease, Singin’ in the Rain, and Moulin Rouge! in its lineup, and a few nights of pre-movie dance instruction. One of Jasper’s favorite memories is when they screened Independence Day on July 4 in 2012, and fireworks lit up the sky behind the screen. This year, the Summer Screen theme is “Who’s Got Game?”—including Bring It On, She’s the Man, Cool Runnings, and Best in Show.

Every year, the BID staff meets to choose a theme, then land on around 20 to 30 films that fit it. Then, those movies go out in a survey to the NoMa community—1,136 people voted in this year’s survey—and the top 12 are chosen to screen that summer.

“We’re really looking for the broadest possible appeal, because we just want people to come out and enjoy a summer Wednesday evening with their neighbors,” she says.

National Gallery of Art Film Programming 

“Film is something we should think about the way we think about going to a museum and seeing paintings,” says Margaret Parsons, film program curator at the National Gallery of Art. Whenever possible, the gallery screens each film in its original format.

The National Gallery started screening movies, primarily documentaries about the arts, shortly after it opened in 1941. But NGA’s film programming as it is today didn’t start until Parsons arrived in 1981. Today, the gallery has year-round free screenings on weekends.

The gallery kicked off this summer’s programming with a series called “Animals in Japanese Cinema,” inspired by the NGA exhibition The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, and screened classics like Godzilla. Last weekend, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and its By the Light of the Silvery Moon exhibition, the gallery screened space-related movies, including The Right Stuff. In August, NGA will host a film series honoring the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, who died earlier this year.

Parsons and her colleague Joanna Raczynska speak to other film experts, attend film festivals, and do extensive research to form solid visions for each series.

Parsons says the screenings are now averaging 200 attendees. For more niche screenings, Parsons says the crowd is closer to 50 or 60, but she says it’s “important to show certain films even if we know they’re not going to attract a big audience.”

“As a society I think we’re kind of losing track of what serious film means, and how it’s had a history and a culture of its own,” she says. “I think it’s important to have these other alternative venues around to keep alive the notion that film is a very important art form.”

Library of Congress’ Summer Movies on the Lawn

The movies shown at the Library of Congress’ Summer Movies on the Lawn series only have one requirement: They must be selected from the National Film Registry—which means a Librarian of Congress has deemed them culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.

The National Film Registry was established in 1988 in an effort to preserve American films. Every year, 25 films are selected for the registry “because of their cultural history and aesthetic significance to our nation’s film heritage,” according to Shari Werb, director of the Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement at the library. 

Since 2017, the Library has been screening National Film Registry movies during the summer on their north lawn, directly across the street from the Capitol. Around 400 people come out for each movie, Werb says, and often bring picnics.

For the first time, this year’s Summer Movies on the Lawn series is themed: “Female and Technology Changemakers in Cinema.” The theme is in line with a year-long initiative by the Library to focus on people they deem America’s changemakers—the Library’s 2019 exhibitions honor suffragists, civil rights activists, and modern artists, among others. This summer’s movie lineup includes Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, A League of Their Own, Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park.

“We really want to make sure it’s a film that will bring people pleasure,” says Werb. 

The Warner Bros. Theater at the National Museum of American History

Full-time Smithsonian film programming started at the Warner Bros. Theater about a year and a half ago. In that year and a half, says Zarth Bertsch, director of theaters at the Smithsonian Institution, the theater has “shown a wide range of American cinema, from classic to contemporary, covering various eras and genres and directors and actors.”

The theater recently hosted a Harry Potter film festival, ’90s film festival, and a series called “Fantastic Female Filmmakers,” in which the theater screened A League of Their Own, Lost in Translation, Monsoon Wedding, and Selma. Monday followed with a screening of Purple Rain—which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year—and a display of one of Prince’s guitars. 

Often, Warner Bros. will host retrospective series on individuals in the industry. One of the first they ever hosted was on Wes Anderson, right before Isle of Dogs came out last year. Earlier this month, a retrospective on Keanu Reeves screened six of his most iconic movies—Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was accompanied with a beer tasting in collaboration with local breweries.

When it comes to selecting subjects for retrospectives, Bertsch says his team looks for people who are “having a moment,” like Keanu Reeves. “We try to time things when a given actor, or director, or era, or genre, for whatever reason is more in the spotlight,” he says. They’re also informed by the Smithsonian’s film artifact collection. Around 200 people come out for each movie, and their mailing list of frequent filmgoers has more than 122,000 names.

Coming 2 America, a sequel to Coming to America, was recently announced, and Bertsch immediately got the idea to do a retrospective on Eddie Murphy

Georgetown Sunset Cinema

The unassuming steep steps at the corner of Prospect St. and 36th St. NW are special: They’re (spoiler alert!) where Father Karras falls to his death in horror classic The Exorcist

The neighborhood is the backdrop for so many films that when the Georgetown Business Improvement District staff decided to start an outdoor movie series called Georgetown Sunset Cinema in 2015, their first theme was came with ease: movies filmed in or inspired by Georgetown. In addition to The Exorcist, they screened St. Elmo’s Fire, State of Play, No Way Out, and Burn After Reading.

The Georgetown Sunset Cinema series came about from a desire the BID had to engage the community more with Georgetown Waterfront Park, says Debbie Young, the events director for the BID. 

In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated 100 years of existence, and Sunset Cinema paid tribute with a series of movies filmed in national parks (like Planet of the Apes and Thelma & Louise). The 2017 theme was “Women in Film” (Hidden Figures, The Devil Wears Prada), and 2018 followed with “Movies that Rock” (Dirty Dancing, Dreamgirls). This summer, the theme is “Out of Office,” and the BID is screening Under the Tuscan Sun, The Sandlot, Little Miss Sunshine, The Parent Trap (Lindsay Lohan version), and Eat Pray Love throughout July and August.

Last summer, the BID decided that instead of choosing all five movies, they’d choose a theme and 10 to 15 potential movies, then let the community choose their preferred five through an online survey.

About 700 people come out for each movie, Young says. “People are picking movies that they love.” Her dream theme is “Christmas in July,” which would feature everyone’s favorite holiday movies. Her co-workers have shot this down the past few summers. But there’s always next year.

Want a heads up about artsy goings-on? Sign up for To Do This Week, a twice-a-week email roundup of arts and cultural events.