The Denver Film Festival could have come to an abrupt halt this year. On March 31, artistic director Michael Brittin Withey died in a one-car crash. Just weeks later, executive director Andrew Rodgers stepped down after months of staff grumbling.
Instead, under the leadership of the board and Denver Film Festival director Britta Erickson, the festival will be back for its 42nd year, from October 30 to November 10. Erickson is also serving as the interim executive director of the organization that puts on the festival, Denver Film, which recently changed its name from the more haughty Denver Film Society. Anchored in the Sie FilmCenter, Denver Film is now looking to the future while still freeing itself from the grip of a terrible year. After all, Withey had been a mainstay of the film festival for twenty-plus years, shaping its lineup and winning audiences who appreciated his smart insight on films. He earned a reputation as an intelligent programmer, one willing to take risks while still being accountable to film fans.
His death had a devastating impact on Denver Film.
For years, Erickson and Withey had described each other as work spouses. They would chat about festival selections from dawn to dusk. While Withey liked brooding, challenging picks, Erickson peppered the schedule with comedies and more popular — though sometimes equally disturbing — fare, programming red-carpet screenings and sponsor-friendly blockbusters. “In the working relationship that the two of us had, we did truly balance one another,” Erickson says.
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Although it started in 1978 as the Denver International Film Festival, the festival has never been a must-attend industry event or an A-List destination for those outside of the city; still, it’s delivered an impressive array of global films to Denver audiences and brought in stars and directors from around the world. Now Erickson, along with Keith Garcia, who returned to his previous position as Denver Film programming manager last year; festival programmer Matthew Campbell, who backed up Withey; and Denver Film Festival founder and longtime champion Ron Henderson are working together to ensure that Denver’s cinephiles have a world-class art house running year-round, as well as a festival to enjoy in 2019. All while grieving.
As a result of their efforts, this year’s festival isn’t going to feel much different from what audiences have grown to expect over past years, Erickson says. In part, that’s because Henderson mentored Withey, who in turn mentored Campbell. All shared a taste for the indie films that make up much of the fest’s roster.
In the weeks leading up to the festival’s opening night, Erickson has been busy on the phone, negotiating deals and trying to finalize the movies to be shown at the red carpet screenings. Opening night, October 30, will pay homage to Withey and include screenings of some of his favorite films: Frownland, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Movie. “We want to honor his great contributions to the organization over two decades,” Erickson says. “It just felt right on October 30 to curate his favorite films and...I don’t want to say put that behind us. He wouldn’t want us to be wallowing in this, but to take that and move forward.”
Missing will be Withey’s introductions to screenings and his poignant conversations; new will be the Brit Withey Artistic Director Memorial Fund, which has raised money to strengthen the festival’s programming and memorialize his taste. In its inaugural year, the fund will support a retrospective of Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi, one of Withey’s favorites. The schedule will include a full spectrum of fiction, nonfiction and experimental films, along with tributes to international directors; there will be a showcase of Brazilian cinema, virtual-reality installations and a selection of Colorado-made movies. Festival organizers are also working with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which will co-host a screening of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man With a Movie Camera, live-scored by Denver’s DeVotchKa — a pairing first tried at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2017.
But the festival does more than just show films, Erickson notes. In an era when most people watch movies at home, the festival has become a staycation destination that encourages people to get off the couch and come together in real life, sharing in the power of stories. “We’re becoming a society of people who are on our phone all the time. We can watch our stories sitting on the bus — except we’re being disconnected,” she explains. “My philosophy with Denver Film is that we’re trying to get people to commune and get people to have conversations. That’s an important part of humanity. Otherwise, we’re all going to be robots.”
Even as the festival comes together, the Denver Film board is exploring where the organization should go, penning a job description for the next executive director and considering the big questions. Should there be a structural shakeup in how programming operates? Should the group do more to support local filmmakers and bolster Denver’s flailing film industry, or continue to focus almost exclusively on exhibition? What sort of relationship should Denver Film have with other, smaller exhibition projects around town? What’s Denver Film’s vision for the next forty years?
Erickson hopes that the board takes its time answering these questions, as well as picking its next leader. (She won’t say whether she plans to apply for the job.) Rodgers, who was brought in three years ago, promised to pack the Sie FilmCenter with safe fodder like Alfred Hitchcock retrospectives, a vision that veered away from the risk-taking upon which the organization had made its reputation. With the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse indie chain making impressive moves in town and partnering with smaller community groups like Collective Misnomer and the DocuWest Film Festival that had once found a home at the Sie, Denver Film’s reputation as the city’s leading champion of the local scene has come into question. Erickson wants to be sure that the organization is increasing opportunities for Colorado filmmakers and solidifying its status as the city’s film center.
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That’s a noble goal, because local filmmakers are a beleaguered bunch, trying to build careers in a state with a diminishing incentive program. Many Colorado filmmakers envy their colleagues in New Mexico, where the state uses economic incentives to entice production companies. Meanwhile, industry fixtures like WestWorks Studios, Colorado’s largest studio, are closing their doors to local efforts. Shifting some of Denver Film’s focus to supporting movie production — as the Sundance Institute has — could ensure the survival of both the organization and the local film industry, Erickson suggests. She points to the Bohemian Foundation’s funding of the Music District in Fort Collins as a model for what a nonprofit could do for Denver’s film scene, creating screening venues, educational resources and grants to build up the local industry.
“Somebody needs to come in with a vision for how you make that happen,” she explains. “Because exhibition, as we just talked about, is tricky. People just sit on their couch and watch their movies at home. I think the board is in a very great place to move the organization forward with a vision that increases filmmaker support.”
But first, it’s take 42 for the Denver Film Festival.
The Denver Film Festival runs from October 30 through November 10 at venues across town. For tickets and more information, go to denverfilm.org.