by Marcus Harrison Green
If the image of neighbors camped outside under starlit sky – sprawled over transplanted home furnishings while gorging on popcorn, and participating in a collective chorus of oohs and awes conducted by a recent Hollywood blockbuster – seems a sight capable only in one of the idiosyncratic enclaves belonging to the northern end of our fair city, then you may want to watch your step for stray shards of shattered assumptions, as South Seattle readies for its own brand of outdoor film fun.
Later this summer, the Skyway neighborhood will play host to the community run – and eponymously titled- Skyway Outdoor Cinema (SOC) – a cinema series that will commence August 1st – in the U.S. Bank parking lot behind the 7-Eleven on Renton Avenue and 76th – with a showing of Despicable Me 2, and run three successive Fridays thereafter – finishing up August 22nd with Frozen.
Stewarded for over a decade by the volunteer operated West Hill Community Association (WHCA) – previously known as the West Hill Community Council (WHCC) – SOC was originally founded to provide a free, family oriented event that served as a much needed opportunity for engagement amongst community members.
A series of obstacles, including the lack of a thriving business district from which to draw sponsors, the challenge of uniting a disparate fan base and coordinating extensive fundraising efforts led to a reliance on grant funds to maintain a basic level of operation for the first thirteen seasons of the event.
With King County dissolving Unincorporated Area Councils in 2011 in response to budgetary concerns – resulting in a loss of guaranteed annual funding for the WHCC and a forced reorganization resulting in the newly rebranded WHCA – plus dwindling available grant funds, SOC decided to take a new approach. The new strategy, begun last season, is one that uses design and social media to increase its connection with fans and a more sustainable approach to its operating budget. By harnessing the power of its fans with crowdfunding and making smart purchases that eliminated the need to rent expensive equipment year after year – reducing basic operating costs- the event added a higher level of stability and increased its potential for growth.
Now in its second phase of life, the organizers of the open air cinema have redoubled their efforts in utilizing the event to galvanize the entire West Hill Community – which includes the neighborhoods of Skyway, Lakeridge, Bryn Mawr, Campbell Hill, Earlington, Hilltop, Panorama View, and Skycrest – providing a centralized gathering locale that functions as an incubator of community, and that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Something that – according to locals – has been long overdue in the area.
“I think everyone is really tired of Skyway getting such a bad rap. Most people simply absorb what they hear on the news, but those assumptions really aren’t rooted and fact and experience. I think that not only hurts our image outside of our community, but I think it affects us as neighbors as well. We want to provide a fun, free, safe family environment for people to really learn what their community’s all about – I think we deserve that.” said Devin Chicras, WHCA board member and co-organizer of the cinema – in addition to moonlighting as the event’s Master of Ceremonies, Diligent Custodian, Technical Support, and Amiable Attendant Greeter during its film screenings.
With that goal in mind, organizers have made great strides in improving their marketing efforts to attract a much larger swath of the community. Chicras, along with co-organizer Mary Goebel, have worked hard on implementing the new strategy for SOC, which included heavily promoting the event on social media platforms and improving visitors’ experience at every level from engaging pre-show entertainment to free raffle prizes and keeping all concession items under a dollar.
By all measures, these new efforts appear to be working, as not only did attendance double last year, but the event has also enticed people from as far away as Burien and Des Moines to spend their Friday nights in Skyway.
Not bad for an area whose own residents, not all that long ago, barely wanted to set foot on its pavement. “It’s incredible to see this little parking lot in Skyway fill up with all these folks, having fun, talking to their neighbors, eating popcorn or having Domino’s delivered to them while seated on lawn chairs, detached minivan seats, or sprawled out picnic-style on a blanket. These are the people you see sometimes walking down the street, in the store, waiting at the bus stop. And now they’re here, like one big family. At 10pm behind a 7-Eleven in Skyway. It’s truly surreal, and completely inspiring.” Says Chicras.
Communal appreciation could not have come at a better time, as in the ensuing years since losing the majority of its funding, the event has had to rely more heavily on contributions from those living around the area. A dependency that appears quite secure, as the cinema was recently able to purchase a brand new audiovisual system, directly as a result of local generosity.
Costing a little under $7000, The A/V system – which will allow for a larger film projection, along with improved sound and picture quality more in line with traditional cinematic experiences – seemed out of reach for event organizers, as they received only a $3000 Community Engagement Grant from King County towards its purchase. Unsure of how they would make up the difference Chicras and Goebel turned to the community via a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.
“We only needed $3975 and ended up getting $4320! We were absolutely blown away by the generosity of our community.” said Chicras. The additional funds will be used to supplement SOC’s already meager budget, as it has never turned a profit, nor sought to – its primary mission remaining to build connections between residents. “We’re doing our best to make sure each and every person feels like being in that parking lot with their neighbors and friends is exactly where they should be on a Friday night in August.”
That is believed to be mission accomplished according to Sherrie Vineyard – who has attended the cinema since its inception.
“It gives (Skyway residents) four Friday nights each summer to really connect with our families and neighbors, and share what we’re about as a community. Last year, they held a raffle for school supply filled backpacks, and I was lucky enough to win one. That backpack went to a little boy who had a mom with no idea of how she was going to get supplies for him. The Skyway Outdoor Cinema does more than impact the lives of the community for four weeks each summer. They impact lives for years to come with their generosity and warm hearts.”
Skyway Outdoor Cinema runs August 1st (Despicable Me 2), 8th (The Lego Movie), 15th (Gravity) and 22nd (Frozen). Pre-show entertainment starts at 8pm, with the film at 9pm. Visit their website (MyWestHill.org/SOC) and Facebook Page (Facebook.com/SkywayOutdoorCinema) for more information.
Additional thanks to Devin Chicras for assisting with this article.