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Photo courtesy of Larry Laszlo.

Looking Back on 40 Years of the Denver Film Festival

The Denver Film Festival is enjoying its 40th iteration this year. We look back at the moments that shaped one of the city's signature cultural events.

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Gathered over beers on a cold day in 1977, a small committee of Denver cinephiles sat on the floor of a Washington Park apartment, planting the seeds for what would become the Denver Film Festival. Forty years later, the grassroots festival has blossomed into one of the Mile High City’s signature cultural events. And as the Denver Film Festival celebrates a significant milestone this year, it’s worth looking back on some of the signature moments that have made Denver a cinema time capsule.

In 1978, when the Denver Film Festival was founded, there were only a couple dozen film festivals in the country. There are now more than 1,500. The Sundance Film Festival, founded by Robert Redford, would not exist for another seven years. The famous Telluride Film Festival, only into its fourth year, had cultivated national and international attention. The founding festival committee, emboldened by Telluride’s success, decided to launch their own film experiment in Denver.

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A small group of volunteers—Peter Warren, Irene Clurman, Ron Henderson, Ron Hecht, Terry Thoren, Larry Laszlo and Al Miller—had nothing more than a dream, a passion for cinema, and grit. In order to get the festival off the ground, the festival committee had to assemble an advisory board, find donated office space, launch a membership drive, recruit additional volunteers, invite festival filmmaker guests and, most important of all, program the festival. No one on the festival committee collected a salary for the first three years.

Look through our slideshow of the Denver Film Festival through the years.

On May 4, 1978, Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm inaugurated the first edition of the Denver Film Festival at the former 1,200-seat Centre Theatre. That year, the fest ran ten days and screened 78 films, with a focus on international cinema. The reception to the festival was overwhelmingly positive, and provided much-needed momentum. The following year the festival opened with Woody Allen’s Manhattan (Woody Allen films have opened the Denver Film Festival five times—more than any other director). The buzz grew quickly for Allen’s screening and the festival sold out all 2,000 seats at the Paramount Theater. After two successful years, it was clear that Denver’s festival was here to stay.

“For the past forty years, the Denver Film Festival has worked to educate and entertain audiences with their comprehensive programming,” says KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz. “Because of the Denver Film Festival, hundreds and hundreds of films have played here that would otherwise never have come to Denver.”

The theaters that hosted the festival in its early years have mostly been converted into apartment buildings and restaurants, or been demolished. The AMC Tivoli 12 Theaters, which began screening DFF movies in 1985, hosted the festival for 25 years before closing indefinitely in 2011.  In 2010, the Denver Film Society began to occupy three screens at the Lowenstein Complex on East Colfax and two years later, thanks to the Anna and John J Sie Foundation, these theaters became one complex known as the Sie Film Center, the permanent home for the Denver Film Society, and the principal venue for the festival.

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Despite multiple venue changes, Denver audiences have enjoyed an unparalleled experience. “What makes this film festival unique, unlike any festival in the country, is that audiences have the ability to interact with film and filmmakers alike in a very intimate way, as if it were a living room conversation,” says DFF founder Ron Henderson. “We have a very informed, discerning audience in Denver and we are told time and time again by visiting filmmakers how savvy the Denver audience is.”

The festival has hosted world and U.S. premieres for dozens of films including the world premiere Robert Altman’s A Wedding and the U.S. premiere of Ray, which earned Jamie Foxx an Academy Award for best actor. Prominent filmmakers, actors, and screenwriters have passed through the Mile High City—some of whom arrived as unknowns and then went on to have illustrious careers. For instance, When Jeff Goldblum attended the festival in 1985, he was accompanied by an “unknown” girlfriend—Geena Davis. The Coen Brothers also attended the festival a year earlier as obscure filmmakers when they screened their first feature, Blood Simple, before taking it to Sundance. And Geoffrey Rush was a completely unknown actor to American audiences when he attended the festival in 1996 with his film, Shine.   

Perhaps the festival’s most infamous year was 1997, when early two feet of snow fell, the governor declared a state of emergency, and the Warwick hotel became a shelter for staff and guests. “At the time the hotel had a screening room which held around 100 people. VHS copies of the films from the festival program were collected and screened for those stranded in the hotel,” says Brit Withey, the festival’s artistic director. “The festival guests from Australia, which was the country in focus for that year, had a large reserve of beer and suddenly a makeshift film festival ensued.”

Surviving forty years as a nonprofit cultural event is no easy task. Box office receipts and film society memberships have never covered the costs of producing this festival, and at various points over the past 40 years, disgruntled sponsors and expiring leases have nearly put a nail in the festival’s coffin. But in 2001, John Sie, a former Chief Executive Officer of Starz Encore Group, pledged a $5 million dollar grant to the Denver Film Society which helped stabilize its future. 

As the curtain lifts this year’s festival, only time will tell what memorable experiences might ensue. But one thing is for sure—women will be at its center.  “What I did not consciously realize was that all of this year’s red carpet screenings feature strong, female driven narratives,” Britta Erickson, the festival director, says. “I seriously think that four of the five eventual best actress nominees for the Academy Awards are in this year’s program. This is only the second time the festival has opened with a film directed by a woman.”

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The Denver Film Festival is faced with new challenges as it looks to its future. The arrival of video-on-demand platforms (like Netflix and Amazon) have shifted audiences and content dramatically. And the festival acknowledges it is a challenge to turn out audiences, especially younger audiences, who tend to prefer streaming services.This year’s festival already features one Amazon Studios film and Erickson says she is open to growing these relationships as the landscape for film distribution continues to shift. 

The festival has also embraced television and virtual reality as new entry points for audiences to engage in the festival. “As a festival, it is a natural progression to expand to allow for new types of content to be incorporated. In order to survive we have to remain nimble,” Erickson says. She views the new virtual reality sidebar, which will be presented at the McNichnols Civic Center Building, as a new way for audiences to engage with content. 

It is hard to imagine a world where the Denver Film Festival ceases to exist. A loyal, dedicated audience has come to roost here. In a May 1978 Los Angeles Times chief film critic Charles Champlin wrote, “Denver’s festival is obviously here to stay. You have to hope it doesn’t lose its informality or its variety.” Forty years later, the festival’s ethos is still intact. Here’s to you, Denver Film Festival.

The 10 movies you’ve got to see at this year’s film festival, November 1-12.

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