Last summer, the folks at the Palm Springs Cultural Center decided to bring back the drive-in movie experience. It seemed like a no-brainer idea: Since people couldn’t watch the films long screened inside at the Cultural Center, they took the films outside.
However, the weather and the pandemic had other plans, as explained by Eric Smith, the general manager of the Palm Springs Cultural Center.
“We started on July 4th,” Smith said. “We had never done anything like this before. When we started, we got a giant inflatable screen—which was beautiful. It worked great. But if there was any kind of wind, we couldn’t do subtitles or anything like that. And we realized that the inflatable screen was just a little bit too close to the ground for all the cars’ spots to see. So we built a brand-new screen, hoisted it up and bolted it to the wall to double our field of vision—and then August hit, and it became so hot that our ticket sales just simply dropped. So we had to bite the big one and close up for that month.
“Then when we reopened in the fall—that’s when that second super-spreader hit. So we’ve got a sign that says, ‘Welcome back for Act 3.’”
That third act Smith is referring to is the recent return of the Outdoor Cinema Experience. For several weeks now, the Cultural Center has been welcoming back people for evening films—watchable via cars, picnic tables or socially distanced chairs—on Fridays and Saturdays. Most Fridays, the Outdoor Cinema Experience features a new independent film; most Saturdays, it features a classic—for example, The Birdcage (March 13) or Beautiful Thing (March 20).
As for those new indie films?
“We’re trying to make sure that every one of the new films coincides with the premiere that we’re doing on our Virtual Cinema—so if you miss it that one night, you’ll be able to log on to our website and go to our Virtual Cinema, and you’ll have a good two to three weeks to catch that film.
“On the 12th, we’ve got an amazing documentary called Stray. I still can’t figure how they filmed it, but it follows a stray dog in Istanbul. I want to get into a Q&A with this filmmaker; I want to see some interviews, because some of these shots are just breathtaking.
“And then on the 19th, you know we love French film around here. So we’ve got an amazing film called Les Parfums. And it’s about an executive who is sort of like the sommelier of perfumes, and how her expertise in one field doesn’t necessarily translate to the rest of her life, and her struggles and triumphs. I think it looks like a fun romp for everyone.”
For the final weekend in March, the Cultural Center is breaking from the format and teaming up with the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival for some nearly sold-out showings of My Name Is Lopez, a locally produced documentary about the life of Trini Lopez. The legendary musician and actor died last August in Palm Springs due to COVID-19.
“Everybody in the valley—you either know someone who had a great story about Trini Lopez, or you’ve actually run into Trini Lopez and have a great story about him yourself,” Smith said. “So I’m really, really excited and looking forward to that.”
While the Outdoor Cinema Experience has started and stopped a couple of times, the Cultural Center grounds have always seen activity, including the Certified Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning—and more.
“One of the fun things we do is the first Sunday of every month, we host a Vintage Market,” Smith said “That is just an amazing eclectic collection of artists and food—and we’ve partnered with them to do a couple of semi-annual events that are tiki based called Alohana. We set up a bar. Everybody brings something. We have tiki-carvers; we’ve got a little live music. It’s just a truly fun and unique event. … We have the next one coming up on April 18.”
With local COVID-19 numbers decreasing, indoor theaters will soon be able to reopen for limited-capacity screenings—as early as next week, in fact. However, Smith said the Cultural Center will stick to outdoor screenings for at least the immediate future.
“We have several large national chains in the area, and we can use them as a litmus test to see when the audience is ready to go back,” Smith said. “I think there’s a big worry … (that when we) go down to red, and they allow theaters to open up inside, the audience still won’t feel comfortable yet.”
Smith said the Cultural Center is definitely planning on welcoming audiences back indoors, pandemic permitting, later this year.
“We’ve already taken submissions for our Cinema Diverse film festival,” he said. “I know (the Palm Springs International) Short Fest has finished their submissions. We’ve got some great AmDoc screenings coming up. So our festivals, we’re planning as if we’re going to be open down the line for those.”
Even after the return to the new normal, Smith said he anticipates the Outdoor Cinema Experience will remain part of the Cultural Center from now on.
“Since we already have the equipment, judging by weather and things like that, there’s no reason at all, unless our audience just doesn’t want it, for us not to continue doing it at least once a month, maybe twice a month.”
For more information, including a complete schedule of Outdoor Cinema Experience events, visit psculturalcenter.org. For more information on the Palm Springs Vintage Market, visit palmspringsvintagemarket.com. For details on Alohana, visit www.facebook.com/alohanapalmsprings.