Lights, Camera, Lawn Chair

Drive-ins have gone the way of the dinosaur. DVDs are encroaching on the natural habitat of the single-screen movie house. Yet, something of a hybrid thrives in community parks throughout Marin and San Francisco. This cinematic missing link is Film Night in the Park, an outdoor festival of classic and contemporary movies that’s playing through October in a park near you.

For the past four years, Film Night has been a collaboration between Marin County resident Tom Boss and A.P.P.L.E. Family Works (the acronym stands for “Advancing Practices and Principle of Life Enrichment”) and has grown from its original Creek Park venue in San Anselmo to include three additional Marin County locations and three in San Francisco as well.

“This brings families and neighbors together. This is a great ‘mental health’ program. That’s really what it is,” says Lew Tremaine of the nonprofit in Marin, which aids Film Night in soliciting the donations that keep it going. “It gets people out and together and enjoying community. That was Tom’s vision all along, and that’s Family Works’ vision, so it works really well.”

On a grassy knoll in Creek Park, Boss surveys the grounds as a Miles Davis CD plays. Youngsters, from grade school age to teenagers mill around toting pillows and sleeping bags. They stake out plots, while parents get chairs or purchase popcorn and raffle tickets from a nearby concession stand. The theme of this year’s Film Night programming is “All in the Family – Films For and About the Family” and indeed local families have made Film Night regular weekend entertainment. As night begins to fall, Boss gives a cue that fills the outdoor screen with light from a digital projector perched on the hill. The crowd breaks into spontaneous cheers.

“We get a lot of teenagers. That’s one of the main things – to provide something positive for middle school and high school kids to do,” says Boss. “You see groups come and go, they’re kind of just here to meet up, but a lot of them hang out and enjoy the films. I’m always surprised at some of the films that do draw big crowds of teenagers — some of the classics.”

Boss lists titles that one might assume a younger audience member would pass over in a video store: “Some Like It Hot,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and the surprisingly popular “The Philadelphia Story.”

“We got a huge turnout of teenagers for that,” says Boss. “Again, it was a huge crowd in general, but about half of them were kids. I was really blown away by that.”

Film Night was founded in 1992 by Boss and a small cadre of cineastes who used to meet at San Anselmo’s now-defunct Cafe Nuvo. From there they would carpool to San Francisco to see films that wouldn’t play at the local multiplex.

“Sometimes it would be the Castro Theater for a classic or the Red Vic for something interesting, or the Cinematheque at the Art Institute for something really eclectic, but then we realized that ‘We’re a group of people, we love these films, why don’t we do something ourselves?’ We started at the cafe, but it became so popular we quickly moved it outdoors,” recalls Boss.

The outdoors factor has proven to be as big a draw as the films themselves, not to mention the socializing that naturally occurs in such a novel situation.

“We take advantage of that. We realize that people come, not just for the movie, but for the social experience and being outdoors. We take advantage of that and mix it up. We’ll show some well-known films to draw in the crowds but then we’ll show some lesser-known films to turn people on,” says Boss, a lifelong lover of film. “You can hear the comments while people are leaving, ‘Wow, that’s such a great film, I can’t believe I never saw that,’ or, ‘I’d never seen it on the big screen.’ ”

Likewise, audience members such as David Potts, a 22-year-old Fairfax resident, enjoy the novelty of not being confined by a theater auditorium.

“I enjoy it. It was a pretty fun night last night. I got to see ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ which was a killer movie,” says Potts. “I like the environment. I don’t like to be stuck in a movie theater. That sucks.”

When Boss upgraded from a 16-millimeter film projector to a digital DVD projector three years ago, he anticipated some fallout from die-hard fans of celluloid, but was pleasantly surprised to find the new tech-savvy system embraced by his audiences.

“We made the change to digital and got nothing but compliments. We were waiting for the complaints. A few people say, ‘We liked the sound of the projector,’ ” says Boss, who points out that some of the DVDs of the classic films he has shown were made from old prints and retain enough imperfections to keep his more nostalgic audiences happy. “You still get the lines and a hair now and then,” he said.

And what of the Bay Area’s mercurial weather patterns? Boss says that Film Night has never been preempted by one of those pesky late-season showers that the area has recently endured.

“We haven’t had a rainout, but we have had a ‘sprinkler out,’ ” he said. “We were showing ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ about two years ago. About five minutes before the ending, right at the peak of the film, the sprinklers went on and everyone screamed and ran. We all had a good laugh and the equipment didn’t get ruined. We’ve been very fortunate,” recalls Boss. “That won’t happen again — that was pixies or something.”

Upcoming Film Night highlights include family favorites “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the original Gene Wilder film), The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Boss has also programmed some rare gems seldom seen on screen, let alone outdoors.

“I do get pleasure turning people on to films I love that they have never seen or heard of before,” says Boss, who cites actor Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, “Night of the Hunter,” as an example. “Not a film for the kids, but one of the greatest American films. Not a lot of people have heard of it, so we’ll be turning people on to it this year.”

For more film schedule information, visit or call (415) 453-4333