Is This the End of Screen on the Green?

The future of one of DC’s most beloved summer traditions is again in jeopardy. But one group is working hard to make sure the show goes on.

By: Rachel Tepper

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Screen on the Green, the free movie festival on the National Mall once synonymous with sticky Washington summers, is again in jeopardy. After HBO pulled its funding last season, a swell of community support convinced Comcast to pick up the slack. But now sponsors are feeling gun shy. Is the demise of Screen on the Green imminent?

That’s something Jesse Rauch and his team at Save Screen on the Green refuse to accept. They’re launching a new campaign to ensure that the festival doesn’t fade quietly into Washington memory.

“This is one of the truest community events out there,” says Rauch, the organization’s program director. He and friends started the Facebook groups that last year urged Washingtonians to lobby Comcast and ultimately secured the company’s sponsorship. More than 2,500 people joined up, demonstrating the public’s widespread support for the festival. “We loved the community’s response here,” he says. “We were able to achieve something.”

But Comcast only promised funding for the 2009 season. The media giant currently has the permits in order for the 2010 festival, says Rauch, but it isn’t prepared to foot as large a portion of the bill as last year. Of the total amount necessary to make Screen on the Green 2010 a go, Comcast has pledged one third and HBO another. Now partnered with the DC Film Alliance, Rauch has launched a new community initiative to finance the remaining third of the bill.

A letter-writing campaign is in the works for next week. The Facebook group Save Screen on the Green! boasts nearly 4,000 members, all of whom are being asked to tweet, blog, and write to potential sponsors to show their support. Targets include companies and organizations with products to hawk, says Rauch. After all, the offer of a free movie is what keeps people coming back, and even more freebies would increase the draw. “Fifteen thousand people attend each showing. It’s a huge opportunity to get a product out there.”

Rauch is an unlikely hero for the movement. Despite his day job as a DC Council staffer, he has no formal organizing training. “My background is education policy,” says Rauch, who spent a few years teaching third graders in DC public schools with Teach for America and later worked for the American Federation of Teachers. “I really don’t have a lot of grassroots experience—it’s been a huge learning experience. Barack Obama makes it look so easy.”

Taken with Obama’s ability to connect with voters online, Rauch took a play out of his playbook—he enlisted the help of online-strategy guru Lauren Miller, who works at Blue State Digital, Obama’s trusty communications e-machine. With her help and that of ten other young professionals, Rauch is confident the festival can be saved. “We’re all doing it as volunteers,” he says. “Working with that passion has made it a lot easier.”

Even still, the campaign has hit some roadblocks. Corporate indifference has proven to be its biggest hurdle. “HBO doesn’t really talk to us. They’re not very responsive people,” he reveals. “We’re trying to play nice and not put egg on their face, but this is something really important to us.”

Rauch is still hopeful for a repeat of last year’s success. The community’s support is palpable, and small donations continue to flow in through the campaign’s Web site. However, Screen on the Green needs someone to ante up the big bucks if it’s to survive. “I don’t think our summers would be the same without it,” warns Rauch. “This is touching a lot of people.”

>> The future of Screen on the Green may be hanging in the balance, but don’t fret—there are plenty of other free-film events happening throughout Washington. Check out our guide to outdoor movie series happening throughout Washington this summer.

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