Moon and stars: Park Nights, open-air film screenings

This summer, swap the multiplex for an open-air screening of your favourite classic film. But, Charlotte Cripps advises, take a picnic and a poncho

To tie in with his show Continuation, on now at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the American artist Richard Prince has chosen some cult classics of American cinema to be screened outside on a 50ft screen, near the Serpentine lake in Kensington Gardens. The films he's chosen include Two-Lane Blacktop, a road-movie directed by Monte Hellman, starring James Taylor and the Beach Boy Dennis Wilson; Bullitt, the Steve McQueen classic with its car chase through San Francisco; and Rendezvous, a nine-minute dash through Paris, filmed by Claude Lelouch.

Why did he choose these? "The doom, the unflinching points of view. They're direct, without artifice," Prince says.

But the screenings are also part of a growing trend – outdoor cinema. Sally Tallant, head of programmes at the Serpentine, says: "By showing a classic like Two-Lane Blacktop outdoors, in a park in the heart of the city, the environment gives the film a unique framing. The cult-classic nature of the three films, which all have epic car chases, suits outdoor screening.

"We have been screening outdoors since 2002, and the romance and collective nature of seeing film outdoors in the city is something we are going to see much more of."

Somerset House, where a big screen has been set up in the courtyard for its Film4 Summer Screen event since 2005, is selling 2,000 tickets each night. The 10-night season (to 9 August) opened with the premiere of Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army and finishes with a David Lynch double bill – The Elephant Man and Wild At Heart – and Al Pacino in Scarface.

The director of public programmes at Somerset House, Linda Bernhardt, says: "What people love is that it recreates the magic of going to the movies. The fact that you can see a film and bring a picnic means it becomes a whole evening. If it's raining, the audience snuggle up and we provide rain ponchos. This year, the tickets sold out long before the series started."

The Big Chill festival last weekend at Eastnor Deer Park in Herefordshire put on its first late-night outdoor film programme at its Moonlit Picture House, having drafted in the BFI and ICA to screen the films. The highlight was Dracula, shown at 1am.

Stuart Brown, the BFI's head of events, says: "The increasing demand for outdoor screenings is a reaction to the insular nature of iPod and download culture. People still want to come together and share an experience, which is a very human impulse. As technology advances and digital projection becomes more accessible, we will see a huge increase in open-air cinema. There's something very exciting about the epic scale of it."

Victoria Burns, who programmed films for Big Chill, says: "We screened the award-winning documentary Man on Wire on the main music stage. It is fun to take movies out of a theatre setting."

Also doing that is the Devon-based Skylight open-air cinema, which will be screening Hairspray at Blackpool Sands on 21 August. Meanwhile, the Screen Machine, an 80-seat mobile cinema that avoids the risk of bad weather, is touring the Highlands and Islands of Scotland with Sex and the City and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Elsewhere in Scotland, the Film Festival Under the Stars took place as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, putting on movies at the Mound Precinct, next to the National Gallery. Films this year included ET and Back to the Future.

But can movies really be appreciated outdoors? Mark Dinning, editor of Empire magazine, says: "Certain movies work in the open air. It is fair to say that intimate French dramas probably play better in a small, intimate cinema, but blockbusters like Indiana Jones or Hellboy II, or a classic like The Sound of Music, play perfectly to big crowds late on summer evenings; you get a communal atmosphere not dissimilar to watching a big band at Glastonbury. It's a great movie plus a picnic – what's better than that?"

Park Nights: open-air film screenings, Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7402 6075), 15 August to 5 September. Richard Prince's exhibition Continuation runs to 7 September.

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