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Photo of scene in King Richard, starring Will Smith.
King Richard, starring Will Smith, will close this year’s Denver Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

How Denver Film Worked to Add Diverse Films to Its Annual Festival

The efforts included tapping Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival to help bring Oscar-worthy flicks to Mile High cinephiles.

The last time the Denver Film Festival (DFF) rolled out a physical red carpet for its trademark opening gala at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, cinema was still a very white space. Back then, in 2019, only 27.6 percent of lead actors in theatrical and streaming films were played by people of color, despite minorities accounting for the majority of ticket sales for eight of the top 10 films. Although that number had increased to nearly 40 percent by 2020, Hollywood’s reckoning with inclusion is ongoing, with women and minorities still lagging behind in critical behind-the-camera jobs. As the DFF returns to in-person screenings this month (November 3 to 14)—COVID-19 forced 2020’s edition to go virtual—Denver Film, the nonprofit that organizes the event, is working to shine a brighter spotlight on organizations that promote diversity in film. “Rather than trying to invent something ourselves or step on the toes of people already doing the work,” says Denver Film CEO James Mejia, “we’d rather help make them successful.”

The most visible partnership at this year’s DFF is with the Color of Conversation Film Series, Denver’s only festival dedicated to filmmakers of color. Founded in 2018 by Stephanie Tavares-Rance and her husband, Floyd Rance, the low-profile event gathers attendees at the University of Denver’s Newman Center (with the exception of 2020, when it was held virtually) to watch movies and TV shows and participate in panel discussions. Then, this past June, Denver Film and the Color of Conversation co-hosted a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. “A diverse audience of people came out to support the film and panel discussion,” Tavares-Rance says, “demystifying the false notion that there aren’t Black cinephiles in this city.”

The collaboration will also benefit this year’s DFF. Rance’s production company, Run&Shoot Filmworks, organizes the 19-year-old Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. That longtime summer affair has allowed the couple to establish relationships with major Hollywood studios and celebrities (this year’s event featured both Lee and actor Regina King). Through those connections, Run&Shoot was able to secure an early screening of King Richard—an Oscar-bait biopic starring Will Smith as the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams—to fill DFF’s coveted closing spot, on November 13. “That’s what I want to do for Denver,” Tavares-Rance says. “I want to have people really take Denver seriously and consider it a player in Hollywood.”


Widening the Lens

Three more ways Denver Film is working both within its organization and with other nonprofits to promote diversity in film.

1. CineLatinx

Included in November’s DFF programming, Denver Film’s CineLatinx recently signed Amazon as its title sponsor, providing more funds the festival can put toward acquiring Hispanic films.

2. CinemaQ and Women+Film

Founded in 2006, CinemaQ, Denver Film’s showcase of LGBTQ cinema, plans to expand during next August’s event with a new award for a rising star in queer filmmaking. Women+Film, launched the same year, will screen The Conductor, a documentary about former Colorado maestra Marin Alsop, at the Denver Botanic Gardens on November 7.

3. Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival

The folks behind Sloan Lake’s iconic boat race started this fest five years ago to promote Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures. Denver Film curates the event’s lineup based on a community-chosen theme, like health and wellness or representation in the media.

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