Arts and Culture

How the Denver Film Festival Beat the Odds by Actually Happening

Frances McDormand stars in Nomadland, the opening-night presentation of the 43rd Denver Film Festival.
Frances McDormand stars in Nomadland, the opening-night presentation of the 43rd Denver Film Festival. Denver Film Festival
In defiance of COVID-19, the Denver Film Festival begins today, Thursday, October 22, and will run through Sunday, November 8 — a span that roughly corresponds to what fest director Britta Erickson undoubtedly envisioned for the 43rd edition of the Mile High City staple around this time last year. But pretty much everything else has changed. Rather than hundreds of movies unspooling at venues such as the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the Sie FilmCenter and the UA Denver Pavilions, more than seventy will be screened virtually, with the exception of three drive-in events at Red Rocks — including the opening-night presentation of Nomadland, starring Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, which gets under way at 7 p.m. this evening.

Transitioning from an in-person event replete with presentations and celebrity appearances to one in which attendees watch the films on their own televisions or laptops was a mammoth task, but one that Erickson says she and her staff never shied away from tackling.

"I don't think we ever thought we wouldn't do the 43rd Denver Film Festival," Erickson notes. "We joking said, 'Maybe we should call in the 42nd and a half.' But there was always an intention to bring the best of world cinema to our audience and not skip a year."

Planning began way back in March, during the early days of the pandemic. "As it became apparent that the world was going to be changing with the cancellation of [Austin's] SXSW, which really got caught in the eye of the storm, we starting having discussions about how we could pivot," Erickson recalls. "We started talking to other regional festivals that were supposed to take place in the spring, including the Cleveland Film Festival, which we look at as kind of a kindred spirit — a reputable regional festival that services a large, dedicated audience, much like Denver does. They went virtual in just a couple of weeks, and we looked at a lot of their survey data post-festival to see what they had learned."

After that, she continues, "we spent a couple of months doing a lot of research about what virtual platform to use. And once we determined that, we started utilizing the platform we chose over the summer, offering virtual screenings of what we otherwise would have been showing at the Sie FilmCenter. That gave our audience a chance to play around with the platform and make sure they understood the technology, which is very user-friendly even for someone like me, who's not the greatest tech person. We wanted to make sure you didn't have to watch on a computer — that you can plug it into the other apps or run an HTML cable to your big-screen TV or just watch it on Roku. You can screen it as easily as you can screen a Netflix title."

Not that the DFF approach is identical to the one used by the streaming giant. "Netflix curates its menu based on your taste," Erickson points out. "But ours is highly curated by the same curatorial team that's been bringing you the festival for many years," including artistic director Matt Campbell, who was mentored by his predecessor, Brit Withey, before the latter's tragic death in an automobile crash on March 31, 2019. "The through-line of their sensibilities is very apparent to me," she notes.

Like many arts organizations, the Denver Film Society, which encompasses the festival and the Sie FilmCenter, took a heavy financial hit from the novel coronavirus. Still, Erickson is confident that "Denver Film is definitely going to survive," she says. "We were fortunate, obviously, to get PPP [the federal Paycheck Protection Program] money, but it wasn't without its pains. When it became apparent we had to close the FilmCenter, we did, unfortunately, have to lay off all the part-time employees, and there were furloughs, although we've managed to bring some people back. And we also reinvented Film on the Rocks to more of a drive-in scenario at the lower south parking lots at Red Rocks. We couldn't do it in the amphitheater, where we could have 8,500 attendees, so we converted to 300 cars, and it was super-successful. Of the 32 shows we ran over our eight-week schedule, we sold out all but four of them."

The virtual version of DFF43 offers advantages to people outside of Denver; digital access is available to anyone living in Colorado, so people across the state can see the movies, too, without having to relocate to the Eastern Slope for two weeks. There's also increased flexibility in terms of viewing times. While some selections can only be accessed during a tight window — for instance, the highly anticipated immigrant drama Minari, supplemented by a pre-recorded Q&A with former Walking Dead star Steven Yeun, must be started between 7:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. on Friday, October 23 — other pictures will be available at any time that's convenient for individual viewers over the course of the festival.

Because film production and distribution have been severely impacted by COVID-19, the total number of films at the festival is around a third of what it would otherwise have been. But Erickson feels the quality of the pictures that Campbell and company secured — including Nomadland, which she predicts will lead to another Oscar nod for McDormand — is as high as ever, and will provide a bracing blast of new, vibrant material for movie lovers.

"I personally think our team is delivering the best world cinema in an unprecedented time," Erickson concludes.

Click to learn more about tonight's screening of Nomadland and the 43rd Denver Film Festival in general, including how to access selections online.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts