At a time when movie houses are jumping through hoops to get audiences off their couches and back into theaters — adding recliners, high-end concessions and such gimmicks as 3-D, Imax and surround sound — it seems like there’s an explosion of outdoor summer screening series, often with little more than an inflatable screen set up on a patch of empty lawn somewhere. (Check out There’s probably one near you.) And they’re more popular than ever, despite the heat, bugs, airplane noise and threat of rain.

It’s hard to argue with a picnic supper and a free film under the stars (yes, many of them are free). But what is the precise appeal? Is it that sense of nostalgia, spontaneity and freedom that the outdoor movie evokes? The memory of someone’s dad throwing up a white sheet in the backyard and turning on the projector? The fact that you can take off your shoes and your neighbor won’t complain about your stinky feet?

Yes, but the reasons are many. Each venue is a little bit different. Here are 10 of our favorite alfresco film series — and what we love about each one.

Best Block Party Vibe

Sundays in Fairfax’s Mosaic District — a mixed-use “urban neighborhood” in Merrifield that’s home to restaurants, retail, residences, office space and a hotel — they fire up the high-def digital screen that sits on the outside wall of the Angelika Film Center, the art house multiplex. The free movies that are shown as part of the Films in the Park series aren’t programmed by the theater, though. Rather, they’re a community service of the property management company that aims to appeal to a family crowd (none is racier than PG). And appeal they do, judging by the large audience at a recent screening of “Free Willy.” Kids were playing cornhole in the street; grown-ups were hanging around chatting on blue Adirondack chairs outside of Target. The rest of us sat in rapt attention in front of a 1993 movie about a beloved killer whale. Sure, you could say it’s just another soulless commercial development. But there’s something about the corny charm of these movies (which will include “Homeward Bound”) that adds a touch of soul — and sweetness — to the pedestrian plaza known, appropriately enough, as Strawberry Park.

Sundays through Sept. 1 at 2910 District Ave., Merrifield, Va. Free.

Coming soon “Christopher Robin” (PG, 2018), July 14 at 7 p.m.

Pro tip Parking is free. Shop, get a bite to eat (or a craft beer at Caboose Commons) without worrying about the time.

Bathroom facilities Public restrooms.

Best Downtown Vibe

In a vacant lot in NoMa — known informally as the Lot at First and Pierce — you’ll find weekly screenings of sports-themed movies this summer. (After a “Karate Kid” rainout, “Love & Basketball” opened the 2019 season, whose theme is “Who’s Got Game?”) Nestled in an accidental amphitheater of concrete and glass formed, on three sides, by tall apartments and an office building, the weekly NoMa Summer Screen series — now in its 12th season — has a vibe that’s both slightly gritty and surprisingly welcoming. Step off the city sidewalks onto the grass lawn (yes, real grass, surrounded by a handful of picnic tables), and you’ll enter a world that feels connected to, yet somehow far removed from the urban jungle: Beach chairs, picnickers on blankets, and dogs on leashes cast a relaxed air over this Hump Day escape in the beating heart of the city. Pack a snack or grab a bite from the food trucks that park along First Street and put the workaday world behind you.

Wednesdays through Aug. 21 at 1150 First St. NE. Free.

Coming soon “Bend It Like Beckham” (PG-13, 2002), July 17 at 8:31 p.m.

Pro tip Grab a pre-film beer (or two) at the Wunder Garten beer garden, just across First Street.

Bathroom facilities Porta-potties.

Best Small-Town Vibe

In the ’90s, Kalorama’s Mitchell Park had gone to the dogs — literally and figuratively. That’s according to Holly Sukenik, a young mother at the time who co-founded the Friends of Mitchell Park to help rescue the once-green space from dust storms, flooding and the off-leash neighborhood canines who had seemingly claimed it as their own. Today, after a 2003 renovation, this sweet little gem of a green space — which features abundant shade, a basketball court, a play area and an athletic field that sits where a 1795 farmhouse used to be — is home to Film in the Field , a summer movie series that offers free popcorn and snow cones, as well as a bit of time travel to a quieter, simpler time and place.

Monthly through Sept. 6 at 23rd and S streets NW. Free. No alcohol, no dogs.

Coming soon “Coco” (PG, 2017), July 11 at 8:40 p.m.

Pro tip Enjoy a romantic, pre-screening picnic on the Spanish Steps, just across S Street from the park.

Bathroom facilities Public restrooms.

Best Sunset

When almost every outdoor film series waits until the sun sinks below the horizon to roll the opening credits, you’d expect a series that has the nerve to call itself Sunset Cinema to feature a pretty good light show. And with Georgetown Waterfront Park’s fifth annual summer screening series, you’d be right. The sky turning to pinky-blue behind the Key Bridge is hard to beat. In keeping with the postcard view, the theme of this year’s films is “Out of Office,” featuring stories about travel, vacation or simply summer break. (Look for “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Eat Pray Love.”)

Tuesdays through Aug. 6 at Georgetown Waterfront Park, near the intersection of Water and Potomac streets NW. Free. No alcohol.

Coming soon “The Sandlot” (PG, 1993), July 16 at sunset (8:30-8:45p.m.).

Pro tip Although food trucks set up shop alongside the park, there are also specials available at such nearby dining/drinking spots as America Eats Tavern; Bar à Vin (the wine-bar sibling to Chez Billy Sud); Chaia; Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill; Fiola Mare; and the rooftop bar of the Graham Georgetown hotel (where, truth be told, the sunsets are also none too shabby).

Bathroom facilities Porta-potties.

Best Throwback

Now in its seventh season, the Drive-In at Union Market has successfully resurrected a dying form of entertainment. Pull into the entrance to the parking lot at the NoMa food hall (accessible via Sixth Street NE), set your car radio to 88.1 FM, and prepare for a blast from the past, courtesy of movies projected onto the facade of the building. This screening series is actually a hybrid of the retro and the contemporary. Walk-ins are also welcome to watch from one of several areas: the blacktop “lawn”; an array of picnic tables; and the artificial-turf-lined seating area reserved for customers of Suburbia, a bar made out of a converted Airstream trailer. Start your evening with a snack and a drink inside, maybe a quick game of table tennis out front. End it with a trip down memory lane.

First Fridays through Oct. 4 at 1309 Fifth St. NE. $15 per car; walk-ins free. Alcoholic beverages purchased from market vendors may not be consumed inside the parking lot.

Coming soon “Jaws” (PG, 1975), Aug. 2 at 8:30 p.m.

Pro tip Attention all walk-ins: Bring a folding chair. Seating outside the parking lot is limited, and sitting directly on the surface of the hot blacktop — even with a blanket — is a pain in the tush.

Bathroom facilities Public restrooms.

Best Synergy

Hugging the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is one of the city’s most dramatic and moving monuments. So imagine following up a visit to the site with a movie screening that reinforces some of the slain civil rights leader’s ideals. That’s the idea behind Films at the Stone , a three-screening series that takes place just across West Basin Drive from the memorial itself, on a green space behind the bookstore. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” kicked off the series last month. “The Hate U Give” will close it out in August. Next up is somewhat lighter fare: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” an animated story of a half-black, half-Puerto Rican teenage webslinger who embodies themes of justice, equality and, most importantly, representation.

Monthly through Aug. 28 at 1964 Independence Ave. SW. Free. No alcohol.

Coming soon “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (PG, 2018), July 18 at 7:30 p.m.

Pro tip Take public transportation. Parking is limited. The closest Metro station is Smithsonian, a 10-15 minute walk from the memorial.

Bathroom facilities Porta-potties.


The sign on the wrought-iron gate of Congressional Cemetery reads: “Beware, all souls who enter here,” but in keeping with the tongue-in-cheeky attitude that this Capitol Hill facility is known for, the warning doesn’t refer to anything especially ghastly. It’s simply a reminder that neighborhood dogs (with permits) are allowed to roam free inside the fence, and that the 1807 site, while historic, is still an active burial ground. The emphasis is on “active”: In addition to regular tours, the cemetery hosts yoga workouts, a horror-themed book club, live music and, during the summer months, a “Cinematery ” film series showing scary movies among the tombstones. (Mark your calendar for “Get Out” on Sept. 13.) Picnickers are always welcome.

Monthly through Sept. 13 at 1801 E St. SE. $10 suggested donation. No dogs, no smoking.

Coming soon “Jaws” (PG, 1975), July 19 at 8:30 p.m.; gates open at 7.

Pro tip It’s not all fun and games. Wander around a little. Look for the graves of such famous people as composer John Philip Sousa and Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, both located near the screening area. A little farther off, you’ll find a large Native American totem pole arch, carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation and donated, in a gesture of healing, after the attacks of 9/11.

Bathroom facilities Porta-potties.


The eighth annual Jane Austen Film Festival , held in the cloistered garden of Georgetown’s Dumbarton House — a Federal-style house museum and headquarters of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America — is, hands down, the loveliest outdoor screening venue in the area. Wine and beer are offered for sale, along with kettle corn and, if you preorder, a choice of prepared picnic dinners (including a vegan option). It’s also super-chill; one filmgoer ordered Domino’s pizza delivered to the house before a recent screening of “Sense and Sensibility.” Arguably, the series’s only drawback is that it features the same handful of films over and over, including “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” timed to Halloween. That may soon change, according to events coordinator Hillary Hughes, who says that there’s a possibility of adding such Austen-inspired films as “Clueless” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” to the mix.

Fridays through July 31 at 2 715 Q St. NW. $6; free for Dumbarton House Museum members. No glass, no dogs, no smoking. Low chairs welcome; filmgoers with tall chairs will be directed to move to the sides, along the pebbled path.

Coming soon “Mansfield Park” (PG-13, 1999), July 17 at 8:30 p.m.; gates open at 7:30 (7 for members).

Pro tip Order tickets early, arrive early. Screenings always sell out. And the best spots go quickly. Purchase a reusable, insulated wine tumbler ($15), which gets you half-price pours all season long ($4 instead of $8).

Bathroom facilities Public restrooms.


As you wait for showtime at Movies on the Potomac , a twice weekly screening series on National Harbor’s boardwalk-like waterfront plaza, you’ll see, rising from the sand, J. Seward Johnson’s monumental sculpture “The Awakening.” Beyond that, at the end of a pier: the Capital Wheel, a giant Ferris wheel set against the glistening backdrop of the Potomac River and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. There’s also one of the area’s sharpest, most high-tech outdoor screens: an 18-by-32-foot digital LED display with built-in speakers. More old-fashioned: the kettle corn and fresh-squeezed lemonade that’s for sale — and the folks who gather on Sundays for wholesome family fare, and on Thursdays for the slightly more grown-up “Date Night.”

Thursdays and Sundays through Sept. 22 at National Plaza, National Harbor, Md.

Coming soon “Kin” (PG-13, 2018), July 11 at 7 p.m. “Coco” (PG, 2017), July 14 at 6 p.m.

Pro tip Films in this series start while it’s still light out, so arrive early enough to snag a spot on the artificial turf, in the shade of the screen. At the very least, bring a baseball cap or other wide-brimmed hat to shield your eyes from the glare of the setting sun.

Bathroom facilities Public restrooms.


The setting of the Library of Congress’s third annual Summer Movies on the Lawn is — there’s no other word for it — grand. Straight ahead: the Library of Congress. Behind you: the Supreme Court. To your right: the U.S. Capitol. But what’s on that screen, set up on the north lawn of the Beaux-Arts Jefferson Building, is just as pedigreed: All the movies have been selected from the Library’s National Film Registry, a list of works chosen for preservation because of their “cultural, historic and aesthetic” significance to the nation’s film heritage. This summer, as part of the Library’s year-long initiative celebrating “America’s Changemakers,” the films will focus on two groups of trailblazers: pioneering women and technological innovators.

Thursdays through Aug. 15 at 10 First St. SE. Free. No alcohol.

Coming soon “Mary Poppins” (G, 1964), July 11 at 8:30 p.m.

Pro tip Pack a picnic basket. There are no nearby restaurants.

Bathroom facilities Porta-potties.