Reflecting on the solvent state of Madison summer movies

Outliers aside, Madison’s outdoor movie offerings are great, even in spite of the movies they’re showing

In Jun of 2014, “Wheel and Reels” began making the rounds on social media. Dubbed a “bike-in” movie program, the outdoor series promised three films for Madison’s biking faithful across Jul, Aug, and Sept and even opened up a poll for programming choices. The movies themselves were lackluster but the idea of a new movie program — and one centered around eco-friendly practices and food vendors — was promising.

“Wheels and Reels” batted .666 that summer, eventually cancelling a rained-out Sept finale before spending the following year unsuccessfully Facebooking its way to a new sponsor.

Two years after what seemed like a fun, promising spin on warm weather events, and Madison’s outdoor movie landscape looks a little different. Now, flanking “Lakeside Cinema” (WUD’s outdoor movie series at the Memorial Union Terrace) is “Lakeside Family Films” (WUD’s outdoor movie series at the Memorial Union Terrace). Madison Parks heads up “Moonlight Movies” and The Capital Times just kicked off a three-film series at Breese Stevens Field. The Madison Police Department quietly held a neighborhood series back in May. “Camp Randall Movie Night” is this evening. And don’t look now, but hotels are throwing their hats into the ring as well. Am I forgetting anything?

Including “Rooftop Cinema” at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison cinephiles have at least eight different outdoor options this summer. Hell, someone might be concocting a monstrous three-month Goonies apprecia-thon as you read this.

You are surrounded, Madison. Can you feel it creeping in? Camp Randall’s presentation tonight is Zootopia, a pill the public apparently voted to swallow themselves. Excepting Best in Show next month and On the Waterfront in Aug, Edgewater’s “Movies on the Water” is a bit of a hot mess, running out entries you’d see on iMDb user lists. And while it’s cool for the parks department to screen stuff at the Duck Pond, don’t expect any family-friendly surprises when more films are announced later this summer.

On the one hand, this is expected. Brand-dependent events have a habit of putting minimal thought into their programming, especially when a football stadium is the venue of choice and the main selling point is the off-chance attendees might brush shoulders with Tony Granato. The Edgewater might be getting little bored with that extra remodeled space, too. Regardless of the motivations at play, we can all sell Sky Bar cocktails and get Bucky to turn cartwheels without laying out blankets for a DVD projection of The Princess Bride.

Fortunately, besides-the-fact programming is the exception rather than the rule. Rooftop Cinema has been using a dedicated audience to show offbeat fare for years but MPD’s “Outdoor Movie Nights” (which admittedly, we once poked fun at) seem like a good-natured if under-promoted bridge to community-building in hindsight. Officer Kim Alan, whom I spoke with over the phone, wanted to get “immigrants and first-generation Americans” to bond in her Sheridan Triangle Neighborhood. After borrowing a copy of Shaun the Sheep and that bike-in novelty, Alan had wrangled 60 people by her fourth screening. She plans to do more of them in the fall. 

That’s not all. On top of doubling down on the near east side’s Breese Stevens resurgence, “Catch and Reel” is mixing up the Wisconsin fish fry paradigm with boutique food options. It’s a low bar, but if you’re going to get your five year-old to try Korean-fusion, why not use The Incredibles to do it? The city’s movie boom is interesting in spite of the movies its offering. It’s a trend neither exclusive to Madison nor the state of Wisconsin, and we’re much better off with something like Milwaukee’s “LGBT June!” than the umpteenth Amblin Entertainment Salute.

Madison’s closest drive-in is 40 mins out, and both the Goetz and Highway 18 theaters are totally invested in the experience of watching something from a car. Their audience is niche, the nostalgic and intrepid film fan — to say nothing of an occasionally outdated marketing approach. Summer movie series, however broadly defined, have become a nebulous, more prevalent mutation of an inherently isolating experience. Or to respectfully disagree with The Isthmus, the drive-in experience hasn’t been “threatened”; it’s been personalized.

After a handful of protracted messages between 2015 and 2016, “Wheels and Reels” finally got back to me earlier this week, confirming the series is officially “on the back burner” until further notice. That’s a bummer for the little idea that couldn’t. The silver lining is the genetics of alternative movie options have permeated. Drive-ins may no longer be en vogue, but spiritual successors have persisted, glomming onto community-building and portobello wraps. Just ease up on The Princess Bride.