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Cinespia's John Wyatt celebrates cinema with screenings at Hollywood Forever

Cinespia's John Wyatt celebrates cinema with screenings at Hollywood Forever
John Wyatt, center, chats with fellow film fans before that evening's featured show. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent muggy Saturday evening, John Wyatt was preparing to have 4,000 people over for movie night.

It's a ritual Wyatt's undertaken nearly every summer weekend for more than a decade. He ran through a list of trailers with his projectionist, oversaw the placement of pillows and blankets on the lawn and stopped to taste the snacks — "We've got to figure out a solution for the kettle corn," he declared, solemnly tugging on his reddish beard.

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It's safe to say that no one takes the moviegoing experience more seriously than Wyatt, the founder of Cinespia, an organization that hosts screenings of classic films at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery as well as at downtown L.A.'s historic movie palaces.

At a time when many people opt for the comforts of home viewing over movie theaters, Wyatt draws sell-out audiences — most of them full of people under age 30 — to classic films like "Sunset Blvd.," "It Happened One Night" and "Chinatown," as well as more recent cult favorites like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

With his screenings in atmospheric settings, preshow DJs and elaborately staged photo booths, Wyatt is cultivating a vibe of relaxed enthusiasm that has attracted a devoted following among both casual film fans and Hollywood VIPs.

On this July evening, when Wyatt was showing 1971's "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" at Hollywood Forever, David and Victoria Beckham and their children sprawled on a blanket alongside Gordon Ramsay's family, while Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield played cards with friends as they waited for the movie to start. As the smell of popcorn and weed wafted through the air, DJ Ana Calderon spun "Sweet Caroline" and smiling hipsters lined up to snap shots in a candy-festooned photo booth that had been designed by pop artist Alia Penner, Wyatt's girlfriend.

"You know that feeling when you love something so much and you want to share it?" Wyatt said, explaining what drives him to show a movie. "It's like dropping a bomb. It's really, really gratifying."

This Saturday, Cinespia will host a slumber party-themed all-night event at the cemetery, showing "Can't Hardly Wait," "Scream" and "Cruel Intentions." Other upcoming movies include "Fight Club" and 1960's "Psycho," before the series concludes Sept. 19 with 1976's "Carrie." Cinespia also hosts one-offs the rest of the year — past events have included the premiere of the "Breaking Bad" finale, which drew fans dressed in HazMat suits, in 2013.

Wyatt organized his first movie night at Hollywood Forever in 2002, projecting a borrowed print of Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" onto the side of a mausoleum. (A portion of the fees Wyatt pays to screen at Hollywood Forever goes into an endowment fund to maintain the grounds of the cemetery, the burial site of such Hollywood legends as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and John Huston).

At that first screening, held for his cinema club, Wyatt passed a hat to pay expenses. Since then, his business has ballooned, with Cinespia selling more than 100,000 tickets a year, ranging from $15 to $100 for more elaborate events, like a Halloween night party with a band and an open bar.

"Going to a movie should be a special event," said "Hobbit" star Elijah Wood, who occasionally DJs at Cinespia screenings. "This communal experience in L.A. where you've got 4,000 people picnicking and hanging out and socializing and — a lot of them — experiencing a classic film for the first time, it's extremely special."

Wyatt runs Cinespia, which means "Cinema Spy" in Italian, from his home in Mount Washington, and he has six full-time employees, including himself and Penner. On screening nights, he employs 55 people, many of them from the film business, like Angel Rosa, an assistant director who has managed the traffic flow of picnickers at the gates of Hollywood Forever for a decade.

"It's like working with 4,000 extras," Rosa said, before opening the gates to the first ticketholder in line, Kevin Kearney, 30, who had been waiting for more than four hours. Kearney, who was wearing a hat that said "Hero" and carrying a picnic of beer, cheese, salami and grapes, said he had been to more than 30 Cinespia events.

Wyatt, 41, grew up on L.A.'s show biz-heavy Westside, but with parents outside the business — his mother is a professor of comparative literature at Occidental College, his father, now retired, owned a custom galvanizing company.

While attending the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, he learned to appreciate his hometown's signature art form in a film studies class taught by Jim Hosney, a cult figure who has shepherded a who's who of screenwriters, studio execs and actors into the industry. Wyatt studied film at Bard College and art history at Occidental before starting work as an art director in independent films in the late '90s.

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Wyatt's dominant personality traits — fannish enthusiasm and preternatural calm — seem contradictory, but are part of the secret to the success of his events, which unfold casually despite intricate planning. Once moviegoers began to trickle in on the night of the "Willy Wonka" screening, Wyatt changed from a T-shirt to a floral button-down shirt and from logistics mode to host mode.

"John is super-unassuming," said Jordan Miller, a marketer whose audio company, DTS, has donated speakers to Cinespia. "He's connected as hell. He's just grinding. But he doesn't feel like he wants to be a businessman; he just seems like he wants to share movies with people."

The crowd at Hollywood Forever is an enthusiastic and participatory one — horror films draw audible gasps, musicals inspire singing, and when old movies reflect the social mores of a different era, there's often a shared moment of laughter, as when during "Willy Wonka," Charlie Bucket says he's been saving up to buy his grandfather tobacco.

There are other lightning-in-a-bottle moments too, like when a DJ played a Michael Jackson-themed set the weekend after the singer's death in 2009, and thousands of people rose from their picnic blankets in a spontaneous dance party wake, or when a shy Elizabeth Berkley received a standing ovation at a screening this summer of "Showgirls," the notorious movie that once torpedoed her career but that has evolved into a cult favorite.

Since Wyatt founded Cinespia, others have rediscovered the lure of classic films in communal settings, including the cable channel Turner Classic Movies, which hosts a film festival in Hollywood, ,the Electric Dusk Drive-in, which shows movies on a rooftop in downtown L.A. The L.A. Conservancy also screens classic films at downtown movie palaces as part of its annual Last Remaining Seats series.

In addition to DTS, Cinespia counts Kind snacks and Airbnb among its sponsors; the photo booth, an invention of Penner's, is a hit on Instagram.

But Wyatt still runs his company like a small family business. He picks up DJs at the airport and edits entertaining new trailers for the old films, while Penner, who has also worked for Marie Claire and Nike, creates vivid posters.

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In contrast to the meticulous way he organizes his movie nights, Wyatt is a bit foggy on his long-term goals for Cinespia. "That's a good question," he said when asked what he wants to do next.

"One hope I have is that more and more people can come and see these classic films and that these screenings will grow to other venues. It's important that we remember the people who came to this city to make movies."

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