When James Mejia took over as director of the nonprofit Denver Film in mid-2020, COVID-19 had canceled all in-house programming, and layoffs, furloughs and budget cuts were under way. The few remaining employees were taking on new duties, making sure the organization didn’t fall apart even as their salaries dropped. Morale fell faster: For staffers whose careers were devoted to bringing people together to enjoy movies, the loss of indoor events was devastating.
They'd already decided to rev up a drive-in version of Film on the Rocks in partnership with Denver Arts & Venues, and had launched the new Virtual Cinema. Next on the agenda was figuring out how to move the Denver Film Festival online. But drumming up enthusiasm for yet another online screening platform wasn’t easy — especially when the nonprofit was competing with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, the fate of movie theaters in general looked bleak. AMC was desperate to avoid bankruptcy. The Alamo Drafthouse was running its own online platform, as was the University of Colorado Boulder's International Film Series. Even Collective Misnomer, a tiny nomadic microcinema run by curator and artist Adán De La Garza, had shifted entirely online. Though he had been out of work for months, De La Garza was sending filmmakers $20 checks to pay for donation-based shorts programs, each being screened by a hundred people if he was lucky — and most of them weren't donating.
Months later, few programmers feel that virtual screenings are working well. Screen fatigue has set in across the country, and audiences just aren't showing up. But programmers don’t have many options if they want to stay in business.
According to a recent Scientific and Cultural Facilities District study of how the cultural sector fared from April through September, out of 201 organizations that had shifted programming online, "74 percent of respondents reported they have been only moderately successful or not at all successful in increasing online engagement; 75 percent said they have had moderate to no success monetizing their virtual efforts."
And nonprofits like Denver Film faced an added challenge: proving to their funders that they're still relevant.
Who would want to take over Denver Film during such a cultural apocalypse? Not many people. But Mejia, emboldened by a newcomer’s enthusiasm, a childlike love for the magic of the movies and a longstanding commitment to Denver, loved the idea.
“It might seem like a really difficult time to come into an organization, during a pandemic,” Mejia admits. “I saw it as the exact opposite.”
Easy? Not really. But definitely exciting.
"It’s a very interesting time for us to have brought in a CEO," says longtime programmer Keith Garcia. "His own decision to come in at this interesting time speaks to how he wants to help shape and protect our organization and keep it moving in very positive ways as we go through all this."
With in-person programming on pause, Mejia has used his first few months to review the organization’s mission and vision, establish new goals and do the unglamorous work of budgeting and creating a much-needed human-resources policy.
“We’re still going through adjustments with regard to revenue,” he says. “That’s one side of it, and the other is the expense side and trying to hold things at as low a level as possible while still providing the core services you don’t want to lose. Watching the expenses is every bit as important as the revenue.”
So his bare-bones crew, taxed with keeping those core services going, has also been preparing to rebuild the organization...whenever that’s possible.
“We have a skeleton staff taking downtime for improvements, maintenance of technology, making sure the theater is clean and organized and inventory is accounted for,” Mejia says. “While the downtime may be seen as a detriment, we’re trying to find the silver lining and get organized and put together best practices for when we can open.”
But the shutdown has also given Mejia a rare opportunity to consider the future without the endless pressures of screenings, festivals and other Denver Film business. “It gave me permission to ask a lot of dumb questions: What’s the audience, the income and expense side of things?” he explains. “It’s been helpful to have folks with historic knowledge, and also helpful to come in without it and have the conversation, to go back to square one.”
All the while, he is allowing the skilled team of programmers — longtime Denver Film Festival director Britta Erickson, recently appointed festival artistic director Matthew Campbell and Sie FilmCenter artistic director Garcia — to focus on what they’re good at: first-rate programming.
That move — empowering the passionate staff to do its thing without interference — was a marked change in direction from the previous executive director, Andrew Rodgers. He came into the organization with a vision for what programming should look like, and challenged old-timers to exhibit a mix of warhorse classics by the likes of Hitchcock and focus on selling seats rather than showing tough movies for niche audiences. After three years, Rodgers quit with little notice in April 2019. Erickson served as interim executive director until Mejia arrived.
While Mejia leaves the programming to the programmers, his ideas for what the organization can do with the screenings, festivals and events they plan and the movies they pick is far more ambitious than those of his predecessor. He wants Denver Film to untether itself from its brick-and-mortar theater and spend more time screening films in the community, through both its Virtual Cinema platform and screenings and educational events in schools and cities across the state.
“We want to start getting out to people in their own neighborhoods and their own communities and not expect everyone to come to us," he says. "We realize we can’t be the ivory tower where everyone comes to pay homage. We need to be out in communities and meeting folks where they are, geographically.”
"Expanding beyond the brick-and-mortar of the FilmCenter is something we’ve wanted to do for a while," adds Garcia. "It’s about that engagement. The pandemic sort of forced us into that future thinking. If there’s one thing we had to adapt to, it’s obviously when your theater is closed, how do you engage with your audience?"
Mejia's vision of expansion goes even further: He wants Denver Film to join the Tier 1 ranks of SCFD-funded groups that include the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Denver Zoo, the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Botanic Gardens.
“It’s my belief that we should be having some reach goals at Denver Film, and really take a look at what is possible,” he says. “If we're successful in broadening the reach and becoming the relevant medium that I think we can become, I don’t think there is any reason to think we can’t attract the kind of audience throughout Colorado that would put us in a Tier I status.”
Why get bigger? Mejia hopes that by doing so, Denver Film can reach more people and create positive yet challenging conversations using the power of cinema to address cultural issues.
“I feel really positive about social justice,” he says. “One of my personal and professional goals at Denver Film is to make the medium much more available and accessible, and a catalyst for community conversations.”
For more about Denver Film and its virtual offerings, go to the Denver Film website.
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