THE most devoted pilgrims arrived at Bryant Park on Monday as early as lunchtime, armed with picnic baskets, bedspreads, and enough patience and fortitude to make proud the eponymous lions perched in front of the New York Public Library. Eyeing the lawn, they checked their watches and settled down to bide their time.
So began the waiting ritual that occurs every Monday before the lawn is opened to the public at 5 p.m. for the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival. The 15-year-old series of classic movies attracts film buffs and picnickers eager to indulge in free celluloid worship of works like Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," which began the series this year, and Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," which will end the festival on Aug. 20.
On this day, for many of the 6,000 people who were gathering to see the 1951 science fiction film "The Thing From Another World," the movie was overshadowed by the 10-second sprint onto the grass to claim that perfect blanket real estate. Five hours before the film would flicker onto the screen shortly after dusk at 9:15, more than 100 veteran and virgin sprinters were already lounging on the lawn's perimeter, keeping a wary eye on their competition.
At 4:35, Alice Cashman, the associate director of events for the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, firmly reminded the throng over the loudspeakers to stay off the lawn until the appointed hour. "You wouldn't believe the lengths people go to for space," Ms. Cashman said. "Once I saw this very pregnant woman running. It was terrifying."
Danny Mond, a newly minted graduate of Columbia University's film school, couldn't even concentrate on his Gogol novel, "The Overcoat," because of performance anxiety. "All the elbowing happens right before 5," he said, glaring at a man who had just sidled up beside him at the lawn's edge.
After years of opening the lawn for the festival in the morning, organizers changed to the 5 o'clock policy in 2000. "The die-hards would pay people to sit there all day, which really wasn't fair," said Michael McMorrow, vice president of special events production for HBO, the festival's producer. "Plus it ruined the grass."
It was 4:43, and Alex Snyder, a 21-year-old fashion design assistant from Williamsburg, braced himself for the rush. "I've never done it before, but we're saving spots for probably 15 people, so I'll take someone down if I have to," he said with a grin.
At 4:58, the buzzing crowd of 350 people lined the edge of the grass, standing like nervous sentries. Hearts pounded. Adrenaline raced. Heels arched. Then the words "Enjoy the show!" boomed from the speakers, and screams and laughter erupted as the mob descended onto the grass, their sheets, blankets and towels blowing in the muggy air.