Greece Rediscovers Outdoor Cinema

Now playing: the return of outdoor cinema.

After decades of decline, the Greek tradition of watching films outside on summer nights is showing signs of a rebirth.

Some long-neglected theaters have received a facelift, and Athens’ historic Aegli, which dates back to the silent film era, reopened last month.

Moussaka, Meatballs and Ouzo

Elders who remember the heyday of the outdoor cinema fill theaters — on rooftops and in cozy back lots — alongside younger generations discovering the singular joys of watching the stars under the stars.

Most theaters have small concession tables with increasingly eclectic fare, from moussaka and meatballs to champagne and licorice ouzo. Some venues fill with the scent of flowers as sweltering days become tolerable evenings. And for cigarette-loving Greeks, it’s fine to smoke away during the movie.

If the fall rains hold off, the outdoor cinema season in Greece can stretch into November.

“You enjoy a film with stars as the background, inhaling the aroma of honeysuckle and jasmine, eating pumpkin seeds and enjoying two hours,” said Theodoros Ringas, head of the summer cinema association.

A Tradition Lost

But outdoor theater operators weren’t always so sentimental.

Many sold their land during the two-decade building frenzy that began in the 1960s, when more than 1,000 open-air cinemas dotted Greece. Then television — and later video cassettes and air-conditioned cinemas — siphoned off the audience.

Like American drive-ins, the outdoor theaters began to disappear, at the rate of up to 50 a year.

“It wasn’t to your advantage to have a summer cinema and not to make it a building,” Ringas said.

About 100 open-air theaters currently operate in Athens, where the first outdoor film was an eight-minute silent documentary projected on a wall in central Syntagma Square in 1916. A real outdoor cinema opened north of the city three years later.

Nine theaters operate in Thessaloniki and dozens more are found across the rest of Greece, where various laws and rulings protect them as landmarks and candidates for state assistance. Officials are debating other help such as tax breaks.

Blockbusters Draw People In

Quicker Hollywood releases also have helped revive interest in the outdoor cinema, theater operators say.

In the past, the cinemas mostly showed classic films such as those of Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini, which had a limited and aging audience. In the past several summers, Greek theaters have been getting Hollywood blockbusters within four months of their U.S. release.

Thomas Maniakis, whose summer cinema is located at the foot of the Acropolis, attributed his stellar season last year to the mob comedy Analyze This.

“It was the Titanic of the summer,” he said.

This summer, hopes are pinned on another mobster comedy, The Whole Nine Yards, and the Roman epic Gladiator.

At Athens’ landmark Aphrodite, which reopened in 1999 after being used for decades as a warehouse, the owner decided to forgo nostalgia in favor of a splashy modern approach.

The limited menu was replaced by an extensive buffet and year-round restaurant. For those in the front row there are reclining chairs.

“We said, ‘It’s 2000 and folklorish things don’t have a place here,“‘ said Eleni Kakogianni, part of a group that reopened the cinema.

The Aphrodite and other theaters have upgraded to top-of-the-line projectors and digital sound systems — a vast improvement over the distorted dialogue pouring from some of the older speakers.

But in other places, there is a conscious effort to shun innovation and give patrons the familiar ambience: plastic chairs, gravel, and lots of jasmine and other flora.

Tourists Flock to Cinemas

Oddly, the rebirth of the open-air cinema is occurring during multiplex madness. Three movie theaters with a total of 35 screens have opened since 1997 in the Athens area.

Yet Maria Batistatou, a manager at the 10-screen Village Centre in a suburb north of Athens, says there appears to be room for all. “From what has been proven in the past three years, we have not been affected by the summer cinemas,” she said.

Many tourists also find the outdoor cinemas an unexpected treat.

“I can glance at the Acropolis while watching the movie,” said Mandy Smith, a visitor from South Africa at an open-air theater in the tourist-filled Plaka district. “Most cinemas back home are in shopping malls. In the summer it rains, in the winter it’s cold.”

Greece may lead the way in keeping outdoor cinema alive, but it’s not alone. Across the Mediterranean, places such as Italy, Spain and Turkey have seen the openings of new outdoor film venues.

Still, Ringas, of the cinema association, calls it “a Greek phenomenon.” He adds: “It is unacceptable for the summer cinema to die where it was born.”