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Unique Movie-Watching Experiences in California

Unique Movie-Watching Experiences in California

Catch a film at one of these only-in-California places, including a graveyard, rooftops, and even on the water

No state is as closely associated with movies and television as California, the home of Hollywood. On any given day in the Golden State, you can watch live TV shows being filmed, take a road trip to famous movie locations, visit the places your favorite TV shows are filmed, or even have a celebrity encounter around town. You can also have a unique experience while watching a movie, too.

From gorgeous outdoor theaters that incorporate California’s scenic beauty to historic Hollywood landmarks and quirky, single-screen destinations, California offers plenty of unconventional ways for cinephiles to watch a movie. Here are just a few highlights of the unique movie-watching experiences you can find around the state.

Heikoff Giant Dome Theater

San Diego

Hollywood meets high-tech in the Fleet Science Center’s Heikoff Giant Dome Theater, which pairs a massive, 76-foot wraparound movie screen with groundbreaking IMAX laser technology. Designed to deliver the ultimate immersive, cinematic experience, the theater screens a mix of fascinating documentaries and big-budget, mainstream films created to take full advantage of IMAX technology.

Rooftop Cinema Club

San Diego

Want the drive-in experience without the actual car? Like the series’ name suggests, Rooftop Cinema Club hosts film screenings on rooftops around San Diego and Los Angeles that dispense with the need to get behind the wheel. They provide headphones, comfortable chairs, and even assorted snacks and drinks while you get to watch the stars while under the stars.

Frida Cinema

Santa Ana

You’ll experience a little of everything Orange County’s vibrant arts scene has to offer with a visit to Frida Cinema, a Santa Ana institution that combines its cinema fare with laser shows, art exhibitions in its lobby, and a cornucopia of tribute series and other interactive, themed events. Some wonderfully weird, recent (and upcoming) pairings include a screening of Labyrinth followed by a scientific expert discussing how humans solve mazes, a Wes Anderson–inspired coloring contest before the filmmaker’s new film, and a recurring variety show exploring memorable moments from cult-classic films with musical numbers and stand-up comedy.

Rubidoux Drive-In & Swap Meet


The ability to peruse a massive swap meet during the day and catch a first-run film on a big, outdoor screen at night is quite the double feature, and that’s exactly what the Rubidoux Drive-In and Swap Meet offers. Recently updated to modern drive-in standards—but still featuring a vintage look with its primary, art deco­­­–inspired screen—this Riverside landmark is a popular destination for anyone craving a good deal and a unique movie-watching experience.

New Beverly Cinema

Los Angeles

This former vaudeville house and candy factory received a new lease on life when it was transformed into a movie theater in 1978. Decades later, Oscar-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino bought the New Beverly Cinema, and continues to personally select the films screened there each week. Tarantino’s commitment to film prints is on full display, too, with the theater only screening films shot in the 35mm format, often from the filmmaker’s own collection. Weekly, midnight screenings of Tarantino’s films are a recurring feature on the schedule, along with grindhouse and international genre fare, and live Q&A events.



Watching classic films surrounded by celebrities might be the quintessential Hollywood experience, and Los Angeles’ Cinespia offers the opportunity to do just that by hosting screenings in the famous Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Held on Fairbanks Lawn, the outdoor screenings occasionally feature special guests and live events accompanying the film, all amid the final resting places of Judy Garland, Cecil B. DeMille, and Mickey Rooney.


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Boat Cinema

Castaic Lake

Why settle for watching a film on terra firma when you can do so on a boat? Boat Cinema takes the movie-watching experience offshore with screenings held on Castaic Lake, just north of Santa Clarita and 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. A giant screen is set up on the beach and you’re given the choice of renting a personal, five-person mini-boat for the full, aquatic-meets-cinematic experience, or simply watching from the sand if that’s your preference. There are even “Canoe Concessions” available to deliver snacks, drinks, and pizza to your boat during the film.

Palm Theatre

San Luis Obispo

The first completely solar-powered movie theater in the U.S., The Palm Theatre is located in downtown San Luis Obispo, and continues to hold strong as the county’s last independent theater and a cinematic hub for the SLO International Film Festival.

Yosemite Cinema


Just a short drive from Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Cinema specializes in cinematic, virtual-reality experiences you won’t find anywhere else, including the appropriately titled Yosemite VR—a documentary narrated by Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston. The five-screen theater also rotates through several other VR films, made possible by having the “only permanent Positron Powered Virtual Reality theater in the U.S.”

Unique Movie Watching Experiences in California

Castro Theatre

San Francisco

Constructed in 1922, the Castro Theatre is the grande dame of San Francisco’s arts scene, hosting prominent film festivals, star-studded premieres, musical sing-alongs, and even big-budget drag shows. While its gorgeous facade and classic decor contributed to it being designated San Francisco Historic Landmark #100, it’s the theater’s place in LGBTQ history that cemented its importance in the nation’s cinematic and cultural timeline. Along with hosting one of the country’s first gay film festivals, the Castro has a long history of screening LGBTQ-friendly fare dating back half a century. That tradition continues with plenty of LGBTQ-friendly films and events on its upcoming schedule, even as the theater undergoes renovation and preservation.

Pinecrest Theater


Located within the Stanislaus National Forest, this outdoor theater specializes in family films screened under the stars. A seasonal attraction that runs throughout the summer, the Pinecrest Theater has a long history of blending Northern California’s scenic spectacle with Hollywood’s movie magic. Children in the audience are invited to help lower the screen before enjoying kid-friendly films like Elemental or The Little Mermaid, while other nights feature first-run films for a slightly older crowd, such as Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

The Pageant


Healthy, locally sourced food and drinks pair with intimate, arthouse cinema fare in this Chico theater that has become a local landmark for the arts community. The Pageant features a screening schedule packed with independent and foreign films you’ll have a tough time finding anywhere else, as well as classic movies deserving of the big-screen experience. You’ll be able to watch them while enjoying organic popcorn and vegan snacks, local beers and ciders, or some kombucha—making the experience rewarding for both mind and body.

The Miniplex at Richards’ Goat Tavern


This little, single-screen theater attached to a popular local pub serves as a live music and art venue most of the month, but one night a week The Miniplex plays host to a free, mystery movie screening. The cult-classic films featured in the theater’s “Secret Cinema” schedule are chosen based on a theme that changes each month, with clues about the film provided on the tavern’s Instagram feed.