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For more than two decades, Ron Henderson has been the heart and soul of the Denver International Film Festival -- shepherd and shill, house philosopher and dogged troubleshooter. A publicity volunteer in year one and the festival's director since 1981, he's coaxed cash out of tight-fisted bankers, discovered cinematic masterpieces on road trips to chilly Berlin and played genial host to movie actors shouting curses in the hospitality suite at 3 o'clock in the morning.
More than anyone else, Henderson has been responsible for the survival and phenomenal growth of one of Denver's most vital cultural institutions.
Looking back on a quarter-century of strife and striving, he gently shakes his huge mane of white curls and sums it up: "It's been a bumpy ride. For 25 years, we've always had funding issues, because our tickets are five or six bucks apiece, and our success has always depended on corporate fundraising and foundation dollars. For many years, we had just one big event -- the international festival -- and a couple of annual fundraising events, while the Denver Film Society [the festival's support organization] has a relatively small membership base with modest dues." More than once, he says, the enterprise nearly failed.
On the silver anniversary, though, the festival and the film society have achieved stability and recognition in the world film community -- not least for the fest's prestigious John Cassavetes Award for independent filmmaking (this year's winner is actor Nick Nolte) and its democratic, all-are-welcome atmosphere. The organizational budget is now $1.5 million a year, and the flagship festival that begins Thursday night in the Buell Theatre with White Oleander has spawned four smaller annual events -- including the Aurora Asian Film Festival (held in June) and the Denver Jewish Film Festival (August). Thanks in large part to the Starz Encore Group, the largest provider of cable-TV networks in the United States, Henderson and company now have a permanent home at the Starz FilmCenter at the Tivoli. Beginning in October 2003, a $9 million renovation will provide a cinematheque, new art-house theaters, festival offices, an art gallery and offices for film-education programs in conjunction with the University of Colorado at Denver's College of Arts and Media.
"It's a dream come true," Henderson says. It's also a far cry from 1978, when the first Denver film festival, highlighted by a visit from director Robert Altman and an eleven-film restrospective of his work, unspooled in three widely scattered movie houses -- financed by an interest-free but ill-considered $40,000 loan from Denver's United Bank.
Since then, the festival has changed as dramatically as the city itself, but Henderson's original mission has not. "We've always wanted to bring films to Denver that would normally not be seen and to provide filmmakers -- emerging and established -- opportunities to interact with audiences."
Over the years, those filmmakers have included Altman, Alan Alda, Peter Bogdanovich, silent-movie icon Lillian Gish, Joel and Ethan Coen, Wim Wenders, Richard Dreyfuss, John Frankenheimer, Gena Davis, Decaloguuedirector Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Ellen Burstyn, Rod Steiger, Hal Hartley, Tony Curtis, Michael Moore and Stanley Kramer. Southwestern Colorado's tony Telluride Film Festival may produce more cult buzz among film buffs willing to pay upwards of $1,000 each for four days of moviegoing in the San Juans, but Denver has always come up with the goods.
For Henderson -- a former Methodist seminarian and New York book editor who saw his first transformative "art" film, Federico Fellini's La Strada, in a high school classroom in his home town of Oklahoma City -- the "bumpy ride" he's taken for the last 25 years, complete with twenty-hour workdays and the occasional artistic misstep (an opening-night bomb called O'Hara's Wife remains a company joke) will come to an end in a few years. After juggling title sponsors, staffs and tight budgets for far too long, he now concentrates solely on his first love: programming content. After seeing the Starz FilmCenter grow for a while, he says, he plans to retire altogether. "I'm exhausted," he claims. "I wish all this was happening ten years ago instead of now."
Without him, it wouldn't have happened at all.
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