Off Limits

Movie screenings aren't normally a tough ticket in this town. Free passes to early showings of the average flick can be snagged easily -- not just by local film critics, but by anyone who knows where to go to get one. But then, The Fellowship of the Ring -- the first of three movies that will bring J.R.R. Tolkien's brilliant work of fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, to the big screen -- isn't the average flick. And geeked-out Gandalf groupies who've been waiting a lifetime for this movie make Harry Potter-heads look like a bunch of Muggles (a young bunch of Muggles, at that). So scoring a seat at the super-secret December 5 screening at the Denver Pavilions was tougher than toting a bazooka through Denver International Airport.

New Line Cinema, which made the film, dispatched heavies from the Hollywood security firm of Special Events Management around the country to oversee every media viewing. Six two-guard teams from SEM embarked on two-week, multi-city tours, carrying copies of the movie in bulletproof attachés armed with self-destruction mechanisms (we imagine) and instilling the fear of Mordor in the movie-promotion companies that handle screenings (definitely).

Witness this e-mail, sent to members of the Denver media by Wodell, Iltis, Sherman Associates, the advertising firm that handles much of the movie publicity in town: "Anyone who has not RSVPed will not be admitted -- doesn't matter if we know you or not. Only one reviewing film critic will be admitted for each publication.... You must arrive at the screening EARLY. No One will be admitted after the film begins, and the security process will take a while.... EVERYONE will have their IDs checked as they enter the screening. You must agree to be checked by security personnel prior to entering the screening. Everyone will be checked for cameras, tape recorders or other recording devices prior to entering the screening.... Absolutely NO GUESTS will be admitted in to the theatre, don't even ask! Sorry to be such a pain, but we will be adhering strictly to these guidelines, and studio personnel will be present to make sure all guidelines are met."

And no nail clippers, either.

At the actual event, things weren't quite as heavy-handed; for instance, the SEM guards didn't make Wodell, Iltis, Sherman personnel check ID for Robert Denerstein, the longtime Rocky Mountain News movie critic. A guard did stamp everyone's hand with a mysterious green symbol, however, and even ran after the first three entrants to make sure he'd stamped their left hands as opposed to their right. The second SEM guard stood at the entrance to the theater itself, chatting amiably with an excited, if slightly put off press corps, checking their left hands for the mysterious green symbols and occasionally searching backpacks for recording devices.

Inside the screening sanctuary, the atmosphere was more relaxed, and people in the crowd of fifty or so VIP viewers were even allowed out to go to the bathroom (where the green symbols washed off at the slightest suggestion of water) or score some refreshments. (Denerstein got popcorn, which we have to respect, given that the guy sees 300-plus movies a year.) But while no one was frisked or strip-searched, the scene was unprecedented in Denver movie-watching history. "The best attitude you can take toward it is bemusement," Denerstein says. "It's their movie, so they can do whatever they want with it. Do I understand it? No."

Security around the Lord of the Rings movies has always been tight: Guards in New Zealand, where shooting wrapped up earlier this year, reported numerous encounters with both locals and outsiders trying to get a look at the set. And in August, guests of a 25-minute screening of just part of the film in that country were subject to full-body searches and electronic scans and asked to surrender cell phones and handbags.

Why all the rules? "Just because it's going to be that big," says a publicity person for Wodell, Iltis, Sherman. "It's a little bit different for all of us. It's pretty wild."

Oh, and then there's the bootlegs. In November, the London Sunday Times reported that bootleg DVDs of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone were being sold on the Internet -- two weeks before its premiere. And just a few days ago, the Hollywood Reporter wrote that pirated copies of Fellowship had already turned up during a raid in England.

So how was the actual movie? Denerstein says it wouldn't be appropriate for him to talk about it until his review is published on December 19, the day the movie opens in this country. But here's a hint: Buy a lot of popcorn.

Ugly American: Last week's meeting of the Cherry Creek North Design Review Board was unusually lively. The board -- which is charged with overseeing the design of all new commercial construction in the neighborhood -- had a special guest, Denver City Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt. She'd graced the meeting with her presence in order to ask a difficult question: Why have the boardmembers approved so many ugly new buildings in Cherry Creek?

What set Barnes-Gelt off was developer Jim Sullivan's recent construction of two Beverly Hills-style, red-tile-roofed structures on either side of the former Archdiocese of Denver high-rise at Second Avenue and Josephine Street. While Sullivan and others think the blocky, geometric Archdiocese building is an eyesore, local fans of modern architecture, including Barnes-Gelt, love it. So they were horrified when Sullivan put up the adjacent office and retail complexes. (Although they're still unfinished and unoccupied, one already sports several fake metal palm trees on an outdoor patio.) And Barnes-Gelt, who's not exactly known for being shy and reticent, had no problem telling him so.

"I said, 'Jim, how could you take one of the great buildings in Cherry Creek North and build that butt-ugly piece of crap?'" she told the board. But Sullivan had an answer ready: He said he was proud of the structures, Barnes-Gelt reported.

An amateur architecture critic for years, Barnes-Gelt told the board that Cherry Creek is in danger of being overrun by second-rate "Happy Tuscan" architecture, as she refers to it, fronted with fake stucco, or "Spam stone." And while others refer to this style as "Beverly Hills modern," even many of the review-board members agree that it doesn't have much to do with Denver.

But they also agree that their board has only so much power and can't make a bad design into a good one. That's why Barnes-Gelt plans to review design guidelines for this part of town, to see if city council should beef them up. And in the meantime, she has a new tax proposal certain to grab developers' attention.

"I'm going to sponsor an 'ugly tax' that would raise property taxes by 50 percent on ugly buildings," she told the board. "It will keep the city going for years."

Sweet notes: After being closed to the public for three months, a couple of major government buildings/tourist attractions opened again last weekend -- tours of the U.S. Capitol resumed in Washington, D.C., and access to parts of the Air Force Academy was restored in Colorado Springs. But what's really music to the ears of Meredith Gabow is the news that musicians will once again roam the concourses of Denver International Airport in late December, entertaining travelers and, with any luck, easing the minds of anxious, angry or delayed passengers.

The International Performance Series, as it's called, usually rolls out during hectic times of the year, but it never got off the ground at DIA this Thanksgiving because of increased security measures that have been in place since September 11 (Off Limits, November 22). "There is great support for the series," Gabow, who manages the program, said at the time, "but it's critical for us to focus on the airport's goal of passenger safety."

But now Gabow, who operates a Web site about the airport music at, has gotten word that the series will be allowed to run from December 21 through December 23 and again from December 28 through December 30, soothing travelers with the sounds of musicians and singers from a variety of musical backgrounds.

Now, bring us some figgy pudding.


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