Sala Montjuïc Open-Air Film Festival Aims To Democratize Culture

Sala Montjuïc has become one of the most beloved summer activities, so deeply embedded in the city of Barcelona.

Sala Montjuïc
PHOTO Sala Montjuïc

Nathalie Modigliani is originally from France. In Paris, she habitually attended “Cinéma en plein air” – an outdoor fillm festival that continues to generate 10,000 people each night during cool Parisian summers. When she turned 25 years old and began working as a translator in Barcelona, Nathalie met Mireia Manen. Along with another associate, the ladies decided to venture in the idea of bringing a similar festival to the city of Barcelona. In two years, they searched interminably for the perfection location to host the summer series, and finally settled on a magical venue: the Montjuïc Castle (Barcelona’s Montjuïc is an expansive hill overlooking southwest region of the city center. A historic fortress dates back to 17th century and the castle that still remains today is presently used as an archery range.) Within 10 years, Sala Montjuïc has become one of the most beloved summer activities. It has been so deeply embedded in the city that The Guardian has included the festival in its “10 of the Best Outdoors Activities in Barcelona.”

“10 years ago, on that first night, we obviously didn’t know how many people were going to come, so we set our budget, expecting 400 people.” Nathalie remembers, “On that night, more than 2,000 people came.” The media grasped onto the spirit of the festival immediately. Despite lack of funds to spend on marketing strategists at the time, the team was fortunate to form strong partnerships that generated a high level of credibility. A partnership with Cines Verdi, Sala Montjuïc has been able to screen films in original formats of 35mm reels. Cines Verdi was created 50 years ago and has consistently sustained a positive reputation. With such a partnership, Sala Montjuïc quickly received additional sponsors and further media coverage soon after its first year.

Sala Montjuïc
PHOTO Sala Montjuïc

An obligatory component to the success of Sala Montjuïc is in the heart of the festival. “Our aim is to democratize culture,” Nathalie explains, “to provide the best quality of a cinema experience to the maximum amount of people. We didn’t want to get there with a lot of elite and intellectuals, we wanted to give the experiences to everyone.” It’s the very idea behind the selection process of films prior to the festival each summer, which allows attendees the choice of seeing films that they would never venture on their own. This past summer, the program contained a broad variety of films, including: “The King’s Speech” (a Hollywood blockbuster,) “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (a less mainstream documentary,) a silent film, a Korean film…and many more. The beauty in this concept is that fans often arrive at the festival without prior knowledge of what they are going to see, they can be surprised with a commercial release or an indie screening.

Since each film is screened in its 35mm original version, 2,500 people that show up each night comprise of both locals and ex-pats living in Barcelona. Especially during nights of English-speaking films, half of the audience is composed of foreigners, creating an undeniable international atmosphere. Prior to each screening, a live concert is held next to the castle, the idea is to promote the social element: picnics, dancing, chatting with friends, simply having a great time. “Usually people come with their picnic sets, blankets, beers, wines, food. Some people even come with mattresses.” Nathalie notes, “We wanted to recreate that atmosphere in Paris, where people are used to picnics, which is an extremely European thing.” Apparently, in Southern Europe, the culture is quite different; picnics can be perceived as part of the a lower caste system’s lifestyle. But Sala Montjuïc deems to spread the entire festival experience as peerless enjoyment.

Sala Montjuïc
PHOTO Sala Montjuïc

Part of this experience is about creating more moviegoers, especially toward independent releases. Rather than moviegoers who opt for the latest Hollywood hit, the objective of Sala Montjuïc is a shift away from dubbed films. “That’s not very common in the States, but here, most of the movies are dubbed in Spanish.” Nathalie indicates, “I find it horrible! So that’s also the intention, when you’re watching a film in its original language, everything changes completely.”

Due to the financial crisis that began to negatively affect Spain in 2008, the festival is finally seeing the ramifications this year. In the past 10 years, the programs have maintained the same with an outstanding mixture of film selections. The format of the festival has not altered greatly either, and the volume of attendees hadn’t decreased until this year. Nathalie still attends the festival regularly. “It depends on the night, when there aren’t that many crowds, it’s a bit depressing. When the place is nearly full, although I’m running everywhere, but I like the stress it generates. We can feel it from the beginning, when you see there are 10 people standing in line, and another 10 comes…and you just know it’s going to be depressing. That’s when I want to go home.” She laughs, sweetly.

Sala Montjuïc
PHOTO Sala Montjuïc

10 years ago, Barcelona was viewed as a primitive city by many. With a variety of recent arts and music festivals; despite the economic crisis, today’s Barcelona is widely seen as a trendy destination. Nathalie and her team have managed to attract 250,000 people over the years, and they persist to promote more films to the mass. “El Meu Primer” Festival (literally means: My First Festival,) was established to showcase independent films for children. It occurs in November, during 10 days. Shorts created by American and European directors are presented to 6,000 kids in indoor screenings each year. Staying true to the name of the festival, there are films that also cater to two-year-olds, making El Meu Primer their first film festival, literally.

Going to Montjuic is an effort, the fortress is certainly not within a 5-minute proximity from any point in Barcelona. In fact, it requires 30-45 minutes in addition to buses, walking and possibly trains to reach to the top of the hill. Those who attend the festival on multiple nights during summers in Barcelona, truly want to be there. “People who come to Montjuïc make the effort to come, because they really want to enjoy the film. The magic of the experience is, when 2,000 people watch a single film together, and you can’t hear a single word in the audience, because everyone is concentrating on the screen.”

Nathalie knows exactly what she has created, fans of the festival do not arrive in Montjuïc by mistake. Regardless of what goes on in their lives; on some Spanish summer nights, all they want to do is shove away everything and sit with the magical feeling of the silence.

Wendy Hung

CEO, FOUNDER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

As the founder of Jetset Times, Wendy is an avid traveler and fluent in five languages. When she's not traveling, Wendy calls Paris and Taipei home. Her favorite countries so far from her travels have been: Bhutan, Iran, and Russia because they were all so different! St. Bart's was pretty amazing too (wink)!

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