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Scandal! Intrigue! Adventure! Cinderella stories! And zombies! This is how Colorado’s documentary filmmaking community became one of our state’s most important industries—while helping transform the craft itself.
They had to find a safe way out of China for themselves—and for their contraband. It was 2003, and Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth had spent two months along the country’s border with North Korea shooting footage of and interviewing refugees who’d escaped from one of the world’s most secretive and repressive regimes. Now, the two accidental filmmakers—he was a longtime techie turned venture capitalist, she was an ICU nurse—needed to get back to Colorado if they wanted their nascent movie to ever be seen.
If they were caught with the footage, the duo would likely be imprisoned; anyone who had cooperated with them could face even graver consequences. After a debate about how best to get out of China, they decided to go big: Having shot “stupid tourist footage” throughout their travels, they loaded their cameras and other gear with these tapes and memory cards and headed for the Yanji Chaoyangchuan Airport. Once there, they steeled themselves and rushed the security personnel, shoving the cameras at the guards to show them that they were just a couple of clueless travelers. The guards waved them through the security checkpoint, and Sleeth and Butterworth made the short flight to Seoul, South Korea—the latter with the important tapes and memory cards strapped tightly to his body like smuggled drugs.
The result of this subterfuge was Seoul Train, a 2004 documentary that chronicled the refugees’ plights. The film has been translated into 20 languages, has been broadcast in more than 20 countries and shown at approximately 120 film festivals, and has garnered a duPont Award for excellence in broadcast journalism, along with more than 10 other accolades. It’s also one of the earliest entries in what has become a thriving era for documentary filmmaking here and elsewhere, a period that has seen the Front Range improbably become one of the craft’s most prominent and productive communities.
Thanks to digital technology’s ubiquity and Colorado’s general desirability, New York City and Los Angeles are no longer the exclusive purveyors of celluloid creativity. And while Denver and Boulder still don’t put out the quantity of documentary work those hubs do, the quality of the work being produced here can compete with that from anywhere around the world. Denver and Boulder are home to multiple Academy Award and Emmy winners and nominees, who have also collected numerous other honors, such as high-profile premiers at festivals including Sundance, Toronto, and Tribeca (the latter of which featured four Colorado movies last year). Our region is quickly building a sustainable and potentially lucrative business around film production, meaning people with production talent no longer have to flee to the coasts to find regular work.
Some of these filmmakers are fulfilling lifelong ambitions; some stumbled into it. Some of them are Centennial State natives; others landed here for the same reasons the rest of us did. All of them agree they wouldn’t want to be anywhere besides a community that nurtures ingenuity and collaboration—a place that eschews the hyper-competitiveness you find in the more established show-business hives. “The people here aren’t just good filmmakers,” says Britta Erickson, festival director of the Denver Film Society. “They’re good people who care that there’s a film community here, and they want to see everyone succeed.”
Like most burgeoning artistic endeavors, this community is still fragile and has yet to become a self-sustaining economic juggernaut. But it’s also an industry that could eventually have profound ramifications and rewards, not just for Colorado’s bottom line, but also for its very identity. Take a closer look at the people, organizations, and projects that are turning documentary films into one of our state’s most treasured exports.
Q&A: Britta Erickson and Alison Greenberg Millice
How the Denver Film Society and its allies are trying to make filmmaking and financing a sustainable business in the Mile High City.
Britta Erickson (left) and Alison Greenberg Millice (right)
The success of an individual documentary typically depends on the passion and perseverance of its director, but to establish a community of filmmakers requires infrastructure. That’s where people like Britta Erickson and Alison Greenberg Millice enter the frame. Erickson is the Denver Film Society’s festival director, and Millice is its advancement director. (They’re also co-producing Rolling Papers, an upcoming film about the first year of marijuana legalization in Colorado, and Millice co-produced Saving Face.) The mission of the DFS is to promote Colorado films and filmmakers via festivals and networking events that showcase works and, at the same time, provide connections and educational sessions that teach budding directors how to see their projects to fruition. The pair recently sat down with 5280 to discuss their work and how the Front Range has become a documentary hotbed.
Erickson: In 2013, we started a fiscal scholarship program to help filmmakers raise either awareness for completed films or production funds. It started as something for friends and family of the organization or alumni filmmakers from the festival, people who were kind of in the fold. That program has expanded to include education: industry panels where the community can learn from the brightest in the business about their processes and experiences. We’ll be rolling out hands-on seminar-esque programs in 2015.
Millice: Screenwriters, foreign sales agents, heads of film schools, panels on crowdsourced fund-raising such as Kickstarter campaigns—anything that falls under the filmmaker toolkit. The infrastructure required to pull off a project doesn’t exist here in the way it does in Los Angeles or New York in terms of studios, production space, and available crews. We want to incubate more people to be at that level
A lot of people see film as a creative endeavor and don’t take the time to really learn the financial elements that go into it, such as the lawyers and the casting agents who actually make something happen. We’re trying to balance it so that we’re showing people how to hone their creative skills, but we’re also showing them what they need to know about how to actually execute a film and get it sold and distributed.
Erickson: We also see an opportunity to educate donors to become equity investors so they spread themselves across more projects instead of just attaching themselves to one and taking the tax write-off. We’re trying to build a fund where we can make grants and advise potential financiers by looking at the slate of films that we know are going to be made here. Then we can tell the donors: We’ve vetted these, they’re viable, and we’re going to keep hand-holding these filmmakers through this process so everyone has the best experience possible.
Millice: The talent is here, and there are a lot of people who are interested in supporting film. But it’s kind of been siloed to where one project might get off the ground; it hasn’t been cohesive to where there’s one place you come to get everything you need. That’s what we’re looking to become.
“Colorado is very philanthropically minded, which lends itself to documentary film because a lot of the ones from here are about social issues or the environment.” —Alison Greenberg Millice, producer and Denver Film Society advancement director
Past, Present, and Future
A sampling of Colorado’s most noteworthy documentaries in the past decade—and a look at what’s ahead.
Milkhaus – film editing, location scouting, and production services themilkhaus.com
Coupe Studios – audio services coupestudios.com
Naked Edge Films – capital investment, consultation, and production nakededgefilms.com
Citizen Pictures – editing and production for TV series and documentaries citizenpictures.com
Exposure Labs – production services exposurelabs.com
Film Schools and Support Organizations:
Denver Film Society (includes Sie FilmCenter, Women+Film, and more) denverfilm.org
CU Boulder College of Media, Communication, and Information, colorado.edu/cmci
Colorado Film & Video Association cfva.com
Colorado Office of Film, Television, & Media coloradofilm.org
CU Denver College of Arts & Media cam.ucdenver.edu
Colorado Film School coloradofilmschool.net
DU department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies du.edu/ahss/mfjs
Correction: A previous version of this story inadvertently left off Jerry Aronson’s producer credit for Chasing Ice and listed Frame by Frame’s release date as 2014. We regret the errors.
Biz: How Colorado Attracts (And Keeps) Great Filmmakers
As the documentary scene here has evolved, it’s created opportunities for new companies that lure talent—and has given them a reason to stay put.
Jeff Orlowski came to Boulder in 2007 after graduating from Stanford University, and not long after, he started work on his first feature film, Chasing Ice, an award-winning look at climate change. (It also scored a surprising Oscar nomination for best original song, for J. Ralph’s “Before My Time.”) Not a bad way to launch a career. But Orlowski wanted to stay in Colorado and keep his professional momentum going (not to mention take advantage of the quality of life), so he founded Exposure Labs, a production company that focuses on “socially relevant filmmaking,” both documentary and fictional. “We try to produce our own work and that of other filmmakers, and we do a lot of freelance cinematography,” Orlowski says. “Our commercial work”—for example, with Apple and Stanford—“pays for itself and pays some other bills, too.”
A similar model exists at Denver’s Milkhaus. The production company, which assists filmmakers with editing, casting, location scouting, lighting, and the plethora of other tasks that go into every project, has had a hand in dozens of awards and nominations, including Oscars, Emmys, and festival honors—not bad for an outfit that started as a freelance side project for Davis Coombe (pictured) and his partners. “We spent a few years in [co-founder Dave Krahling’s] 600-square-foot basement until his wife kicked us out,” Coombe says. “Most of the bigger documentaries made in Denver over the past seven or eight years have at least stopped through Milkhaus.”
Ditto Coupe Studios. The Boulder business has been scoring films and providing sound cleanup (ridding scenes of extraneous noises) for 35 years. Coupe is another example of a company whose commercial work for clients such as Red Bull and National Geographic—in addition to projects for advertising agencies—provides a revenue stream that supports the rest of its work, and the studio has served as recording space at night for virtually every big-name band in Colorado, including the Fray and DeVotchKa. “The commercial work is significantly more lucrative than the filmmaking projects, and it enables us to put musicians together with advertisers,” says Coupe partner Eric Singer. “Next thing you know, the band is finding its way onto a film soundtrack. It’s fun to be able to facilitate those connections.”
The advent of more detailed and creative advertising content—not just traditional commercials, but short films that tell stories while hawking products—along with the steamroller that is reality-based TV has also nurtured the local scene. Denver’s Citizen Pictures is the primary producer of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, among other shows, and its efforts have resulted in the sort of day jobs that let behind-the-camera talent make a living here. “We cultivate show runners, producers, directors of photography, and editors,” says Citizen executive producer and head of development Tim McOsker. “We also try to find local on-camera talent that hasn’t been discovered by the mainstream.”
The hope is not only to keep these jobs here, but also to grow more—and in different disciplines such as film coloring, which requires esoteric skills. “It’s a golden age of documentary filmmaking here, and between the University of Colorado Denver and Boulder and the Colorado Film School, we have more than 1,000 kids studying film,” says Donald Zuckerman, commissioner of the Colorado Office of Film, Television, & Media. (Zuckerman’s office was instrumental in luring Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight project, which began filming outside Telluride in January.) “With Comcast, Liberty Global, and Dish Network here, Colorado is one of the major content distributors in the world,” he says. “Why would we cede the jobs of content creation to someplace else?”
“The food community has done a great job with farm-to-table; we’re trying to do more ‘film-to-table,’ where you get your money and production talent from here and tell stories from here.” —Mitch Dickman, producer/director
Inside Coupe Studios
As documentaries evolve from preachy informational films into artful, compelling narratives, a group of Coloradans are leading the way.
If you were to poll the general public, the consensus probably would tab Michael Moore as America’s most famous (or infamous) documentarian. But to many Colorado filmmakers, the man behind Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Roger & Me is fast becoming a dinosaur for one very simple reason: He’s not really a storyteller.
A defining quality of most Colorado-made documentaries is that instead of using narrators to spoon-feed viewers what’s important—until recently, the preferred M.O. of Moore and many documentarians—they’re more likely to convey their messages by assembling a compelling narrative. “Documentaries should be character- and story-driven, not issue-driven,” says Jim Butterworth, who’s produced more than a dozen movies and also co-founded Naked Edge Films, a Boulder company that provides funds and production and consultation services for documentarians. “They should have nuance and ambiguity and respect the intelligence of their audiences.”
This approach is tricky because in essence, it involves turning on the camera and seeing where the footage takes you. Unlike mainstream films, documentaries have no screenplays, so even if directors go into projects with ideas of what they want to illuminate, they’re often at the mercy of what they’re shooting. “That puts the onus on you to find the story and keep the audience surprised throughout the entire experience,” says Daniel Junge, the co-director of Saving Face, which won an Emmy and an Academy Award for best documentary short in 2012.
The burden of creating a captivating, artful story is often shared with the film’s editor, whose job it is to cut the material into a cohesive package. “Not long after I started doing this professionally, I realized that the editing room is where all the magic happens in documentaries,” says Davis Coombe, Junge’s longtime editor and a creative director at the Denver production company Milkhaus. The type of editor that person is often determines the quality of the product. “There are technical editors who know the software, and there are narrative editors who can really see the story, what fits and what doesn’t,” Butterworth says. “You want a film to be its natural length, not longer just because you want a feature. Seoul Train was only 54 minutes long.”
“I’d put the films that have come out of Denver and Boulder in the past five or 10 years up against any products from around the world.” —Daniel Junge, writer/director/producer
The biggest news for the Colorado filmmaking community in early 2015 was the arrival of Quentin Tarantino and crew in Telluride to shoot his new Western, The Hateful Eight. The tax incentives that helped lure the project are part of an ongoing competition throughout the Rocky Mountain region to host such productions, and documentarians benefit as well. “If someone is making or producing a documentary here, we provide a 20 percent rebate—after they’re approved—on what they spend locally,” says Donald Zuckerman of the Colorado Office of Film, Television, & Media. “Those extra two or three freelance jobs per year for a cameraman or crew member make a difference and keep our talent here.”
Department of Fun
Documentaries often train their lenses on issues of moral and social significance. But just like the latest Hollywood blockbuster, sometimes they can simply be enjoyable escapes.
As the birthplace of impactful films such as The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’ Oscar-winning exposé of Japanese dolphin catching, and Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice and still-untitled project about coral reefs, landlocked Colorado has the counterintuitive distinction of being home to some of the world’s most influential oceanographic filmmakers. Daniel Junge’s Saving Face recounts the heartbreaking tales of Pakistani women who were victimized by acid attacks, and Keep On Keepin’ On—put out by locals Paula DuPré Pesmen, Davis Coombe, and Karl Kister, among others—tells the heartwarming story of the friendship between jazz great Clark Terry and his young protégé, blind pianist Justin Kauflin.
But not all documentaries are meant to generate outrage or empathy; some of them are just plain fun. Denver-based Alexandre Philippe has made a career out of exploring pop culture from numerous angles. His Doc of the Dead, an examination of our fascination with zombies, and The People vs. George Lucas, which probed the love-hate relationship the Star Wars creator has with his fans, have arguably received just as much buzz from our Hollywood- and celebrity-obsessed culture as Colorado’s more “serious” films.
Philippe is counting on this obsession to help fuel interest in his next project, 78/52 (produced by Exhibit A Pictures), a deconstruction of the shower scene in Psycho, which the filmmaker calls “the most discussed scene in the history of cinema.” (His title refers to the 78 shots and 52 cuts Alfred Hitchcock used to create the bloody two-minute tableau.) But whether you’re making a film that rattles the seats of global power or simply shows viewers a good time, the motivation remains the same. “We documentary filmmakers in Colorado have become a brand, and people are more comfortable investing in someone who has a track record,” Philippe says. “You’ll always have high points and low points. I’ve never prepared as many notes on a film as this one, but finding a way to get it done is just what I do.”
The Shelf Life of Social Films
Although narrative films usually hog the spotlight, documentary films can have a more enduring impact, and their filmmakers are seen as de facto experts whenever the issue hits the news again. No one from CNN calls James Cameron to talk about Titanic if a ship sinks, but the media often keep documentarians on speed dial. Even though Seoul Train is 11 years old, “I still get calls from Anderson Cooper whenever North Korea does something wacky,” says Jim Butterworth, who notes that the film has also been used by politicians worldwide to help create nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to assisting Korean refugees. Similarly, Jordan Campbell’s Duk County, a 2013 film that recounted American doctors’ efforts to restore sight to 200 patients in South Sudan, used its more than three dozen domestic screenings to raise money for related nonprofits and other medical needs. “A $2 million pledge in health care goes a long way,” Campbell says. “It shows the power a documentary film can have.”
“New York is a place where tons of people have great ideas, and everyone wants to crush them because if you fail, maybe they can succeed. Here, it’s totally different; if you want to do something, people get behind you really quickly.” —Karl Kister, producer
—From top: Courtesy of Jim Butterworth; Courtesy of Incite Productions; Claudia Lopez; Shot on location at Skytheory; Bertoia chair courtesy of Elements; Documentaries: (Hanna Ranch) Courtesy of Zach Armstrong; (Chasing Ice) Wikimedia; (Keep On Keepin’ On) courtesy of Keep on keepin’ on; (Fight Church, Being Evel) Courtesy of Daniel Junge; (Racing extinction) Courtesy of Racing Extinction; (Coombe) Courtesy of Amanda Kopp; Courtesy of Lisa Siciliano; Mark Sink; Courtesy of Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival