While neighbors Sundance and Telluride may steal the spotlight when it comes to international cinema, one of the most notable film festivals in the Mountain West, the Denver Film Festival, takes place in our own backyard. The Denver Film Society (DFS), which hosts the festival, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week with a gala on Thursday night, which will celebrate the life and influence of Ron Henderson. The DFS co-founder, who previously ran a national student film festival in New York, moved to Denver in the late 1970s. Along with a group of fellow film lovers, Henderson brought his interest in foreign and alternative cinema to his new home by establishing the first-ever Denver International Film Festival on May 4, 1978. What began as “just a modest experiment” became an overwhelming success, and now brings in around 50,000 viewers annually, along with a variety of film education programs.

We sat down with Henderson to talk about the history of the DFS, the festival, and the future of cinema in Denver.

5280: What made you decide to establish the film society in Denver and what were your goals?

There was just a small, eclectic group of individuals who were really passionate about film. We wondered, would the city of Denver support an international film festival? Almost all of the original founders were volunteers, because we didn’t know whether there was a future in this business or not.

The first year, we screened 78 films, and hosted a major tribute to (director-screenwriter) Robert Altman, who came to the festival. We closed the festival with the U.S. premiere of A Wedding, his newest film at the time, and screened all 11 of the films he had made up to that date. When the final credits rolled, the response that we got from both the audience and the critics totally exceeded all of our expectations. We felt like we could make this an annual event and, 40 years later, here we are.

What was the film scene like in Denver at the time?
It was very modest. The choices for international cinema and documentaries were very limited at that time. The Ogden Theater showed classic films. There was an independent theater on Old South Pearl called the Vogue, and they screened films that were not necessarily mainstream Hollywood films, but they were limited in what was available. Then there was a little, three-screen complex on Larimer Street called the Flick, which was also an independent chain. So those were the three theaters that we used for the first festival, plus a beautiful, 1,200 seat art deco theater in downtown Denver which no longer exists, called the Center Theater.

What does it feel like to be celebrating the DFS 40 years later?
Forty years is a bit of a landmark year—and I’m a little bit embarrassed that I’m in that spotlight—but I’m also humbled and honored by it. I think what we really want to do is celebrate what we’ve achieved over the past 40 years, and use that as a launching pad for the next 40 years.

How has the festival changed over the past 40 years?
We started out as a once-a-year event, but then we started adding other programs throughout the year. We were actually the original presenters of the Denver Jewish Film Festival, and we also produced an Asian Film Festival at the Fox Theater in Aurora. We put together some Critics’ Choice programs, which included both local and national critics along with an Oscar Party and our Saturday at the Movies programs for kids and families.

We now own our own home, which is the Sie Film Center; so entering our 40th year, we feel like we’re really well positioned to move the organization to yet another level. We feel like our future looks really bright.

What are some of your goals for the future?
We want to continue to build our audience both at the film studio and the film festival. We have a young filmmaker’s workshop that is very popular and we’re adding adult education courses and industry events where people come in from Hollywood and do panels for emerging filmmakers. We also want to build our younger audience with our group called Reel Social Club, where we do programs for millennials. So we’re just kind of honing what we’ve done very well for a long time and trying to broaden our base.

How would you describe the current film scene here in Denver?
It’s better than it’s been in a really long time, but it has a long way to go. And we now have a state film commissioner, Donald Zuckerman, who was a major producer in Hollywood and has good connections with that community. I feel like the incentive program that the legislature instituted several years ago is really critical to increasing film production and attracting film projects here because we’re competing with Utah and New Mexico and Canada, who have great incentives. We just need to keep lobbying for those incentive dollars and Colorado could become a major film production state.

Why is recognizing independent cinema more important now than ever, particularly here in Colorado?
I think the films that the festival [shows] and the programs that we do are different than just going to the movies. It’s more than mindless entertainment or a weekend diversion. Over the years, we’ve really cultivated a very sophisticated, discerning audience, and they support what we do because they’re hungry for films that are not just entertaining, but also have a transformative aspect to them. I personally consider film to be a powerful contemporary art form, and when it’s at it’s best, it has the potential to transport and to humanize and heal and to illuminate the human condition. And the Sie Film Center is the home for that art form.

Henderson also shared some of the highlights from the festival’s history, including major U.S. premieres and appearances from international stars. Check out some of his top moments:

  • 1984: Despite being cut to just five days, the star power is out in full force for the festival’s fifth anniversary. Attendees include Bill Murray, Steve Martin, the Coen Brothers, Harry Dean Stanton, Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme and more.
  • 1989: The festival hosts the U.S. premiere of the acclaimed 10-part Polish film called Dekalog, which had been circulating on the international film circuit. Director Krzysztof Kieślowski is in attendance, along with newly famous director Steven Soderbergh, of the Ocean’s series—recipient of the society’s first John Cassavetes Award for achievement in filmmaking.
  • 2004: The U.S. premiere of Oscar-winner Ray is held in Denver, featuring appearances from stars Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington. John Hickenlooper presents Morgan Freeman with his annual Mayor’s Career Achievement Award.
  • 2005: The critically acclaimed Ang Lee film Brokeback Mountain closes out the festival, with screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana in attendance. Lee is presented with the Mayor’s Award.
  • 2016: Emma Stone makes an appearance to present her Oscar-winning hit La La Land.

If you go: The Denver Film Society’s 40th Birthday Gala will take place Thursday, May 11 at 6 p.m. at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, 7711 E. Academy Blvd., #1. Purchase tickets here.