20 Summers ago, an LA born and raised film student, John Wyatt, took his local cinema club and unexpectedly turned it into one of the most beloved, successful and long lasting summer experiences in the history of the city most synonymous with film. At the heart of Hollywood itself, in the resting place of so many of its golden age icons—The Hollywood Forever Cemetery—movie lovers come by the thousands, lined up down Santa Monica Boulevard, clad in head-to-toe costumes with picnic baskets, blankets, and lawn chairs in hand, waiting to watch a classic film under the stars and, not unironically, surrounded by the graves of stars. Films such as Jaws. Big. Chinatown. Some Like it Hot. Coming to America. The Big Lebowski. Boogie Nights. From Wilder and Hitchcock to Spielberg and Hughes. Ephron to Tarantino. Films they can quote along and out loud to, en masse. I’ll never forget merrily chanting, “There’s no crying in baseball!” at the screen, in unison with 3,500 other people.
Or perhaps they line up to catch one of the many-an-aged star who have come to present his or hers most cult-status film (Tatum O’Neal presenting Paper Moon, Lori Petty presenting Point Break). Or to dance into the wee hours to one of LA’s famed DJs while the credits run.
Over the years, over a million—yes, a million— film lovers have bought tickets. Every weekend of every summer through Halloween… that is, until 2020. In the year when all went dark, so did the wall of Fairbanks Lawn’s Cathedral Mausoleum (housing the crypt of Rudolph Valentino himself) where so many classics had been projected. Truth be told, for many, summer in LA was not summer in LA without Cinespia.
13 months later, in July 2021, the screenings came back to the cemetery, right in time for its 20th anniversary, starting with a showing of Dazed and Confused—and with it, 4,000 people, just happy to celebrate film once more, and to feel like, just maybe, life would be alright, alright, alright again.
LEO: Since it’s the 20th anniversary, let’s start from the beginning. How did the idea for Cinespia come about in the first place, how did you get started, and why the cemetery?
JOHN WYATT: We started with a film club that just went to see old movies around town, and then we’d have a dinner afterwards. I did that for about a year with my friend, and it grew very fast, so we started looking for a place to screen things. I had a friend who worked at the cemetery. The cemetery itself was interested in doing events. Once I saw the field, I talked to them, and it was like a perfect marriage. They wanted to do stuff, and I had something to do, so we tried one.
Do you remember what that first movie you screened was?
Yes, it was Strangers on a Train, Alfred Hitchcock. A bunch of people showed up, more than our film club, and I knew, right at that moment—oh, this could be huge.
How many summers before it really took off and became the massive hit it is now?
I mean, honestly, by the second or third show, we were over a thousand people.
That summer, it really just exploded. It started as just our invite list, which was a mailing list—snail mail, where I’d actually print a little card with a picture of the movie, and put all the details on the back, put a stamp on it, and mail it out [laughs].
Snail mail, wow, talk about a throwback.
It kind of made it this word of mouth thing; it was almost like this hidden secret, and if you knew, you would show up and get treated to a movie outdoors.
Every once in a while, people send me pictures of the cards from 20 years ago and send it to me.
I’ve always been interested in film, I worked in indie film, and as a DJ as well. So I knew who all the great DJ’s in LA were. I DJ’ed the first few screenings; it was very humble in its beginnings [laughs]. But then I had the opportunity to start getting these incredible LA DJs. One of the most underrated DJ markets in the world is Los Angeles. You have incredible DJs playing for a couple hundred bucks in some bar with a terrible sound system, and they’re like a world-class DJ. It’s just one of the strange things about LA. Other cities pay their DJs [laughs].
Do you have any favorite films you were particularly excited to screen?
What’s really, really gratifying and beautiful to see is these moments when the crowd just lets go of other inhibitions and, say, gets up and dances. At Fourth of July this year, we showed Dirty Dancing, and no matter what someone might think about the value of that film… there’s no question that it entertains an audience, let’s put it that way. By the end, literally every person on the field was standing up and dancing and just having the best time, just celebrating life, really. And coming out of the pandemic, that moment just felt doubly meaningful.
Moments like that, really, those are the things that I remember for years and years. When we did Purple Rain, right after Prince passed, we flew out Questlove to do a massive Prince set. We set up all these stadium lasers and built a giant shrine to Prince. People were invited to bring some flowers and spend a minute at the altar and leave their flowers [laughs].
It was so powerful, so fun. Just a celebration of life. And without a doubt, Questlove played probably one of the best sets he’s ever played. I wasn’t even sure when the movie ended, ’cause people were on their feet, they were dancing, and then he started to DJ. The end of the movie transformed into this massive, massive dance party. And then we turned on the lasers and people went crazy.
Another movie that I love at the cemetery is Sunset Boulevard, because all the themes are about old faded Hollywood, the golden age that’s now in decay, and so many of the people in the film and some of the people they mentioned in the film, have been laid to rest at Hollywood Forever [Cemetery]. It’s like adding another meta-layer to this already meta movie. By the end, when Norma Desmond addresses the audience, it’s like she’s speaking to us at the cemetery right there, and the sound the crowd makes when that happens is just unbelievable. That movie is so, so, so good on every level. So that’s another one of my favorites, it’s like the most appropriate film.
Right, within that context.
That’s the big reason why we’re there, too—all that Hollywood history. We just did Wizard of Oz, and you’re steps away from the director’s grave, Victor Fleming. Their famous costumer Adrian [Adoph Greenberg] is buried there. Toto the dog has a cenotaph there. And Judy Garland has her final resting place there. So it’s just swirling around you, all the people who made the film. You have all that there, and you’re celebrating not only what they made, but that era of Hollywood. That to me was very, very interesting.
What was the first film you guys screened post-pandemic?
The first film we played post-pandemic for a regular season was Dazed and Confused. We spent a lot of time looking at movies, watching movies, to decide what was the right thing, and honestly, I think that we couldn’t have picked a more perfect film. It’s hard to describe, but it’s one of those films you live in while it’s on, and you just have fun in this world for an hour and a half, and it’s really a feel good movie in so many ways, and in all the right ways in that moment. That night was incredible.
Do you have a personal favorite film?
It’s hard. I’m a big fan of The Godfather. I really like ’70s films a lot, but I love all kinds of films.
Do you guys have to repeat films?
Sometimes, yeah. We really try to pick films for that moment in time. What’s gonna feel modern, what’s gonna feel fresh—and in 20 years. You know that that changes, and with the times it changes. We’re even showing films that are “classic” that came out after I started these screenings. So it’s very, very fluid, it’s always changing, and what might have worked 15 years ago… some of those films don’t feel right today, with our perspective looking back. Other films have really grown in popularity, and become cool classics just on their own without any marketing or anything—it’s just the fans, the film lovers do it.
So, that’s really fun and we take it very seriously, navigating that. We work very hard on our programming, I think it’s what makes us the most popular theatre, I suppose.
What about your favorite of the slumber parties, when you screen the three films back to back in one night—do you have a favorite trio?
Well, my favorite night, more for the atmosphere and the audience, was our fantasy night. We showed fantasy films, and we built a tiny renaissance fair, and we built all these structures and hired all these actors and craftsmen and populated this little village [laughs] with people, and you could go through it—and basically, you were at a renaissance fair.
The movies were Legend, Neverending Story, and Labyrinth.
You guys are famous for having very special hosts pre-screening. Is there one that stands out in your mind?
The first time we did Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, we had Paul Reubens come, and he really hadn’t been in public, done a public appearance, in I don’t know how many years. He was on the fence about it, and wasn’t sure, really, honestly, what kind of reaction he would get, and I just told him over and over how much people love him. How much no one cares about anything but all the great stuff he did. When he finally agreed, and when he finally came out and I heard the cheering, feeling the love, and I knew that that was the beginning of him coming back—that was such a great moment. And he’s such a gracious, funny guy. He just charmed the pants off the audience. It was a great moment.
In the early, early days, I would show films on 35 millimeter and set up two giant projectors in a truck in the back of the field, and I got to show some very rare prints, which was really fun. They’re movies people probably don’t know that well…
Let’s see. Oh boy, I gotta remember… One was Purple Noon.
And Eyes Without a Face, that was a good one. It’s a French horror film. It’s so beautiful, and it’s just something that never showed around LA. I got the print from UCLA Film Archive; I was just so thankful they’d work with me. We did a changeover, which means we had to set up two projectors so that we could keep the film intact. And it took us about 12 hours to set up the night before. We were there till dawn. And it was just really gratifying for me personally. All these people got to discover this film; it was really fun.
Is there a film you have wanted to show but feel is too obscure to sell 4,000 tickets?
Yeah, there’s lots of obscure films, and we have done things on a smaller scale. For instance, we did Paris, Texas, the Wim Wenders film.
One of my all-time favorite directors.
We did that downtown at the Palace, and we had Harry Dean Stanton in person.
Yeah. He doesn’t do that. We got him, and he came out, and it was just… He was very terse, and everything he said—he would say one little line, the audience would just roar. He was so good at doing it. It was so funny and witty. It was just a great moment. And then, we enticed a bunch of people to see that movie for the first time.
Maybe they were coming ’cause they were curious and, “Well, Cinespia is showing it, it must be good, hopefully,” that’s what they were thinking. Or maybe some people came to see this beautiful old theater, or some people came just for the photo booth… but they ended up watching Paris, Texas and falling in love with that beautiful film.
And then, there’s other films that we can’t license, and that’s always frustrating.
Is there one specific you’re dying to do that you can’t do?
It’s tough to discuss that in print. But we love Pinocchio [laughs]. Does that sound weird? I don’t know. I think Pinocchio is amazing. And I think animated Disney films at the Cemetery would be…
Breathtaking. I think it would be beautiful.
At the moment, they’re not available to us.
Right. Because Disney’s licensing is so strict, I’m sure.
Looking back on 20 years, is there anything in particular you feel very proud of?
It’s been an incredible experience, and just the enthusiasm and love and everything that our audience gives back to us, and all the film lovers and creative people in LA that show up dressed to the nines, ready to celebrate a film. For me personally, bringing joy and happiness to thousands and thousands of people—we’ve had over a million customers—that, for me, personally, is so gratifying. I’m just very thankful. I’m LA-born and raised, and I think the best side of our city comes out for these things. I’ve been able to watch that grow, and it’s been a beautiful experience.
Personally, at the cemetery, I’ve seen so many there over the years, but my favorites were Roman Holiday, Barbarella, Clueless, Legally Blonde, A League of their Own. And Goonies was the last one I saw pre-pandemic. It was special because I saw that film when it first came out in theaters as a kid.
I love Goonies.
Did you ever think it’d be 20 years later, you’d still be here doing this and it would still be this huge?
No, I mean, honestly, at least for the first few years, I was so focused on doing a good job and making it a great experience. I didn’t even realize how popular it’d become. One day, my friend stopped me, he said to me, “Look around, look at what you created.” Literally in that moment, I looked up and I was like, “Wow, it is really crowded.” [Laughs].