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For Baltimore-area outdoor movie series, the sky's the limit

Matt Porterfield remembers sitting on the side of Federal Hill on a warm summer evening a few years back, watching with a few score of his new best pals as Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was projected onto the side of the American Visionary Art Museum.

It was, he says, an experience no movie theater could match.

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"I'd say that I love sitting on the hill with friends and strangers and a bottle of wine, warm evening breeze," the Baltimore-born film director ("Hamilton," "I Used to be Darker") says. "I feel like people can be more playful and reactive when they're watching a movie outside, which makes for a free and fun atmosphere."

Count Maryland Film Festival founder Jed Dietz among the many local film professionals who relish the idea of seeing movies with the night sky as their backdrop. "It's the ultimate movie experience," says Dietz, who has frequently shown movies outdoors (including the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine") during the annual festival. "It's sort of a great summer night activity. But it's also so Baltimore — there's something so informal about it."

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Plenty of folks seem to agree with him. As it has for years, the Baltimore area will be playing host to more than a half-dozen outdoor film festivals this summer, from the streets of Little Italy to the lakefront in Columbia. Clearly, people love the idea of bringing a lawn chair or spreading out a beach blanket to watch movies outdoors for free in good weather.

Many of the series have been around for years; this marks the 18th go-round for Little Italy's Cinema al Fresco series. And none seem to have trouble attracting crowds.

D. Vogel, operator of Middle River's 60-year-old Bengies Drive-In, has devoted his life to showing movies outdoors. (Though the Bengies operates like a regular theater rather than a free festival, charging for admission and playing films that are currently showing in theaters.) He says the feeling of community engendered by showing films in the open air helps keep the crowds coming.

"When you're outside, you can get a much better feel for the crowd reaction and for their interest," he says. "It becomes a real communal experience."

Plus, he notes, playing in an outdoor venue can enhance the film itself — say, when a rainstorm on screen is accompanied by a real downpour (Vogel's been known to thank Mother Nature for enhancing a film's special effects). During movies with scenes set in space, such as "Superman Returns" or the "Star Wars" films, he notes, the Bengies screen seems to merge with the sky itself, making for a profoundly immersive experience.

"The element of being outdoors can really add to the movie," Vogel says.

Still, while the artistic element helps, the appeal of watching a movie under the stars is far simpler than that.

"If it's a beautiful night, the movie's going to be beautiful," says local writer-director Kim Moir. "Trust me — you're going to enjoy it."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

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