Wade Gardner has been running the DocuWest Film Festival on a shoestring budget since 2008. For the past few years, the bootstrapping filmmaker, programmer and activist rented space in the Sie FilmCenter so that he could bring cutting-edge documentaries to the region. Not anymore.
This past spring, Andrew Rodgers, the FilmCenter's new executive director, sat Gardner down to deliver bad news: The organization would have to cut ties with the programmer.
"It had nothing to do with the caliber or quality or personalities," says Rodgers. "It was simply a business decision. We need to prioritize the new films we have in our theater."
Rodgers's decision to boot DocuWest miffed Gardner, who had been paying roughly $5,000 in rental fees to hold the festival at the FilmCenter, a nonprofit he now writes off as "dysfunctional" and "clique-ish."
After scrambling for a new home, Gardner forged a relationship with the staff at the Alamo Drafthouse outpost at Sloan's Lake, where he's renting space for this week's festival.
"We’re just trying to help him with his vision," says Steve Bessette, creative director at the Drafthouse. "We’re helping him where we can, but we’re trying to let him do his thing. Similar to other festivals we’ve had in the past, they come in and have a rental, but we help where we can."
DocuWest isn't the only program that has struggled to find a home after shakeups at the FilmCenter that led to the departure of programmer Ernie Quiroz and the return of former programmer Keith Garcia, who is filling the position temporarily (both Quiroz and Garcia are Westword contributors). The experimental media screening series Collective Misnomer, which had plans to exhibit at the Sie, also found itself without a home earlier this year. The new Alamo location was able to open a theater to fill the gap for one screening in the series, and the collective continues to hunt for a new host.
Under Rodgers's leadership, the FilmCenter has prioritized marketing its regular slate of screenings and strengthening its own programs, including the massive Denver Film Festival. As a result, it has moved away from most collaborations with external programmers. The exceptions to the rule are SeriesFest, a high-profile TV festival, and Process Reversal, an experimental film collective that is run, in part, by a FilmCenter staffer and hosts screenings and workshops at the venue.
"If you're not in their clique," Gardner says, "if you don't jump as high as they say, they blackball people."
Moving forward, Gardner is delighted with his arrangement with Alamo Drafthouse. "Alamo is the best," he says. "For real. They are 100 percent behind what the festival is doing. Their enthusiasm is off the chain. They bend over backwards to help, whether it's film, operations or marketing. It's a breath of fresh air."
Along with his new relationship with Alamo, Gardner has also managed to forge new collaborations, including one with Channel 12. His festival's opening night on Wednesday, September 13, will offer viewers a free sneak peak of Ken Burns's The Vietnam War.
He's looking forward to DocuWest Late Night, a series of oddball screenings of films like Dead Hands Dig Deep, which he calls a "crazy story" about the lead singer of the metal act the Kettle Cadavers, and Love and Saucers, "a look at a fellow that claims he was sexually seduced by aliens, and he's an artist and paints about it."
Gardner describes the closing-night film, Donkeyote, as "one of the most beautiful films of the year." It's the story of a man taking his donkey from Spain to the United States to walk the 2,000-plus miles of the Trail of Tears.
Although Rodgers suspects his programmers lost movies that they would have wanted to screen at the Denver Film Festival to Gardner's DocuWest, he says he doesn't see any local festivals – or theaters, for that matter – as direct competition.
"My personal philosophy is that a rising tide floats all boats," explains Rodgers. "I hope it succeeds and hope it grows, and want people to embrace it and want to see more documentaries because of DocuWest."