Red Rocks Amphitheatre is a world-class concert venue, hosting major rock and pop acts whose big-buck tickets sell out fast. It's also part of a Denver mountain park, paid for and maintained by taxpayers, and the city wants local residents to know the park is for everybody.
That's why, on Monday and Tuesday evenings throughout the summer, Red Rocks turns into an open-air movie theater, showing classics and crowd-pleasers on a custom-built 18,000-square-foot screen, for an admission price that's less than a bag of popcorn at the local googleplex.
But wait -- there's more! Before every screening, and included in the price of admission, a local band plays music to match the film.
"Our goal is to give Red Rocks back to everybody," according to Fabby Hillyard, director of the city's Division of Theaters and Arenas. "We keep ticket prices low, and we try to select films that appeal to all kinds of audiences."
Ticket prices are low: General admission is $5 in advance or $8 on the day of the show, through Ticketmaster only, which has waived all service charges for this series. That means that a $5 ticket really costs only $5. A reserved-seat ticket for the entire series is $45.
The film program is chosen with the help of the Denver Film Society, organizers of the annual Denver International Film Festival, who work with distributors to secure films in the big-reel 35mm format required to run on Red Rocks' equipment.
"Red Rocks has had a projection booth built in since it opened," Hillyard says, "but it was never used during World War II, and after the war, nobody seemed interested in showing movies there."
The lack of a screen to show them on may have been part of the problem. When Film on the Rocks was getting started last year, Hillyard called on the resident wizards in Theaters and Arenas' stage crew to make a screen that could be lowered quickly after the pre-show concert and raised after the screening, that could withstand the stiff breezes that sometimes swirl around the Red Rocks stage without being too stiff itself, and that would be big enough to cover the width of the stage and do justice to the movie images.
"They got a kick out of the challenge," Hillyard adds. "They made two, just in case."
Picking the season can be just as challenging. The first priority is to select films that, on the whole, the entire family can enjoy. This year there are two classics: Citizen Kane, released in 1941, the same year Red Rocks opened, in celebration of the amphitheater's sixtieth anniversary; and From Here to Eternity. Then there are comedies, like Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, and action pictures, like Mission Impossible II.
Consideration is also given to attracting more diverse audiences; for instance, La Bamba is preceded by Manuel Molina y Su Sonida 2000 to appeal to the Latino community. The season kicked off on June 5 with a special screening of Evolution-- with music provided by Opie Gone Bad -- before it opened in theaters.
"We have a lot of latitude in what we show," Hillyard says, "and a lot of what's on this year were suggestions from audience surveys we did last year. It's very moldable, but it also depends on what's available in the format we need for a reasonable price. Our goal is to break even; we did it last year, even though it was only the first time we tried it."
A big part of deciding which movies to show is determining which bands are available so that the music can enhance the movie and add to the event.
"The size of the screen, the concert atmosphere, the outdoor setting, the familiar movies all combine to create a very interactive feeling; people really get into it," Hillyard says. "Independence Day should be a real hit."
Last year, both The Matrix, with Opie Gone Bad, and Casablanca, with the Hot Tomatoes Dance Orchestra, drew more than 7,000 people to the 9,000-seat venue; most shows saw attendance between 4,000 and 5,000. Bad weather put a damper on the turnout for the series closer, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, so Film on the Rocks is bringing it back as this year's closer, with the Hazel Miller Band opening.
"We have people coming out to Red Rocks for the first time in 35 years, because until now, they haven't had a reason to come out," Hillyard says with satisfaction. "Last year, when the Hot Tomatoes were playing before Casablanca, our nineteen-year-old security guys had to ask the seventy-year-old couples to please stop dancing in the planter boxes. Everybody had a great time."
We've included this year's Film on the Rocks schedule in the day-by-day listings in this guide; here's a quick roundup of the features and the bands playing with them.
June 18: Citizen Kane/Colorado Symphony
June 26: Mission Impossible II/Emilio Emilio
July 2: Independence Day/Brethren Fast
July 10: The Rocky Horror Picture Show/Opie Gone Bad
July 16: From Here to Eternity/Nina Storey
July 23: La Bamba/Manuel Molina y Su Sonida 2000
July 31: Braveheart/Denver Brass & Bagpipes
Aug. 14: Blazing Saddles/Timothy P. & Rural Route 3
Aug. 20: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert/Hazel Miller Band