Outdoor flicks mark start of festival season

Eric Hoyt

Chicago’s large summer film festivals, which begin next week, promise not only a tremendous selection of films, but also an especially unforgettable movie-going experience.

At the Chicago Outdoor Film Festival, which runs from July 15 to August 26, movie lovers can step into Hollywood’s sound era starting with Tuesday night’s free presentation of Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934).

But the real draw of the Outdoor Film Festival is the outdoor setting. Festival organizers estimate 20,000 to 25,000 people will come to Grant Park each night for the unique experience of watching a movie on the festival’s state-of-the-art projection and sound system.

The Silent Film Society of Chicago, which has seen the attendance of its Silent Summer Film Festival more than triple since it started four years ago, will open this year’s festival with “The Navigator” (1924) staring Buster Keaton, on July 18 at 8 p.m. Screenings continue every Friday night through August 22.

Tickets range from $7 to $10 per screening.

The festival’s live organ accompaniment and movie palace setting in the Gateway Theatre, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave. in Chicago, create an authentic silent-film experience — as if one stepped into a movie theater 80 years ago.

“What we’re doing is live cinema,” said the society’s program director, Dennis Wolkowicz, who doubles as a silent film organ accompanist.

Aside from its festivals of Hollywood classics, Chicago also hosts two festivals dedicated to screening fiercely independent and largely unseen films.

The Black Harvest International Film and Video Festival, presented at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 164 N. State St. from August 1-14, offers a wide selection of new works by filmmakers of African heritage.

“[Black Harvest] is a great showcase for black filmmakers in Chicago, but also to see what other African directors are doing,” said Kelly Cooper, an assistant at the film center.

Black Harvest marks the official Chicago premiere for a number of films from around the world, as well as some from Chicago such as those in its “Chicago Shorts” program.

Supplementing the screenings are appearances by several of the films’ directors and a panel discussion on “Financing Your Film.”

“They don’t teach you this stuff in film school,” Cooper said. “They tell you about the mechanics, but not how to get the money and get your film out there.”

Like Black Harvest, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, running August 22-28 at Landmark Century Center Cinemas, 2828 N. Clark St., also screens independent and undistributed films.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the festival is dedicated to screening feature-length, short, documentary, and experimental films that deviate in style and content from the “indie” films that might play at the Sundance Film Festival.

The festival has increasingly gained a reputation for its post-screening parties and concerts, as well as its rare films.