San Francisco is notorious for its large population of outdoors enthusiasts. Ask many of them what they’re doing this summer and they’ll likely tell you about the week long camping trip they’ve planned to Big Sur. But for those of us that love the outdoors but aren’t John Muir, myself included, the Bay Area provides an abundance of unconventional movie nights bridging the gap for film enthusiasts, couch potatoes and park regulars alike.

Since 2004, the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation has been helping save the Bay Area’s smaller movie theaters and hosting free outdoor movie nights. At these screenings, audience members sit in the grass watching classics like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Graduate (1967) while vendors hawk food and drink. Across the water, Oakland’s Jack London Square neighborhood presents its series of Waterfront Flicks, showing films like Ghostbusters (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987) all through the end of September. Picnickers can watch films on a theater-sized screen against the backdrop of the Bay’s beautiful shoreline.

For the adventurous or those interested in all things nautical, San Francisco’s Maritime National Historical Park Association screens films aboard the historic Balclutha boat docked at Hyde Street Pier. On the inaugural Thursday night screening, I scarfed down candy and San Francisco’s Anchor Steam beer while watching the original 1953 Academy Award winning shipwreck drama Titanic.

The makeshift movie theater aboard the Balclutha at San Francisco’s Hyde St. Pier

It’s a surreal and exhilarating feeling, watching the greatest maritime disaster in recent history from the bowels of a slowly rocking ship. The suggested $5-15 donation at each screening helps support the association’s educational programs, which bring local schools to learn about the San Francisco Bay and the boats the Maritime association protects.

Audience members wait for the film to start.

While parks house largely popular movie nights throughout the Bay Area, some smaller Bay Area locales are redefining community movie-going by hosting their own unconventional programs. Cinecave, a Mission District members-only micro theater located in the basement of the Lost Weekend video store, has recently launched its regular schedule of programming featuring a full range of content, from Italian horror films to the popular skit Fistful of Yen from the sketch comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). Once a member of Lost Weekend Video Store, membership to the Cinecave club is free with application. Chabot Space & Science Center, a space museum and observatory high in the Oakland hills is showing a different science fiction film every Friday and Saturday through the summer. In addition to films, patrons can see spectacular views of the night sky from the center’s observatory deck.

Pizzaolo, a restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood of North Oakland, uses its back patio and the two-story wall of the neighboring building to project films for a small but devoted crowd. Diners outside at the patio tables can choose from the array of pizzas and sides on the menu, or sit on benches while snacking on homemade Oreos, popcorn, meatball sandwiches and pints of beer. There was nothing quite like the screening I attended of 1986’s Top Gun.   Drunk on wine, beer and those delicious meatball sandwiches, moviegoers bellowed encouragement at Tom Cruise’s Maverick as he made a death-defying move in his MiG-28 jet.   When “Take My Breath Away”  plays over the notorious lovemaking scene, the audience hooted and hollered, delirious with nostalgic glee. Nowhere else could I feel as comfortable singing along to “Danger Zone”  at the top of my lungs than in a crowd full of Top Gun fans.

Though these beloved films can be found on DVD, there’s something about the unorthodox experience of watching films in unconventional places that makes seeing the Princess Bride for the eighth time a novelty all these years later. Instead of opting for the solitary experience of the couch and my Netflix account, these local movie nights demonstrate that in sharing films with others, the atmosphere is as important as the film itself.


Film Night In the Park:

(Films screened at sundown)

August 4th:                               Sixteen Candles

September 15th:             The Graduate

September 29th:               Midnight In Paris

Floating Films at Hyde St. Pier:

(Seating starts at 7:30)

July 26th  Pirates of The Carribean

August 9th                  Master & Commander

August 23rd               The Poseidon Adventure

September 22nd         Moby Dick

Chabot Space & Science Center, Science Fiction Summer Movie Series:

July 27th                                       Inception

August 3rd & 4th               Spaceballs

August 10th & 11th     2001: A Space Odyssey

August 17th & 18th       Apollo 13

August 24th & 25th       Galaxy Quest

Waterfront Flicks:

(Every other Thursday at Sundown in Jack London Square, June-September.)

July 26th                                     Ghostbusters

August 9th                               Moneyball

August 23rd                     Princess Bride

September 6th               Fatal Attraction

Pizzaolo Movie Nights take place Wednesdays at sundown, The August film schedule is TBA.