In retrospect, the new executive director's on-stage debut at the screening of Slumdog Millionaire at last November's Denver International Film Festival should have been a clue. Bo Smith, who'd been selected by the Denver Film Society board to take over from retiring founder Ron Henderson and two interim directors, had only hit town two weeks before, and he proceeded to give a clumsy speech comparing the delights of Boston, where he'd served for more than two decades as head of film and video at the Museum of Fine Arts, to the dreary realities of Denver.
But in all the excitement over the festival, which requires endless hours of work from a full-time staff, along with a loyal cadre of temporary employees and a large crew of volunteers, Smith's appearance was easy to overlook. After all, the films are the stars of the festival, and nothing shone brighter than Slumdog; the executive director of the organization that puts on the show doesn't have to be a showman. Still, Smith's performance over the next few months was harder for staffers to ignore: Their descriptions range from "incompetent" to "abusive," and some longtime business arrangements, such as a deal with Landmark that included films to screen for DFS members and a $7,500 festival sponsorship, disappeared altogether.
By this spring, the situation in the office had gotten so bad that the board hired a mediator. She came up with three options, one of which was letting Smith go. Instead, the board gave him a vote of confidence.
After that, staffers started voting with their feet, sending in resignation letters. By the beginning of June, the list of people willing to quit outright, even in this economy, rather than continue to work with Smith had topped twenty. Brit Withey and Britta Erickson, who'd run the festival for a year after Henderson first stepped down as artistic director, were among those who resigned. Even Henderson reportedly sent a note to board chairman David Charmatz, saying he might have to move on from the organization he'd helped found more than thirty years ago. Still, at an emergency board meeting called for Tuesday, June 2, the board again affirmed its support of Smith.
That's when the problems at the Denver International Film Festival went international, with a story headlined "Mile High Mutiny" appearing June 3 on indieWire, a website for filmmakers and fans. And whether it was inspired by the global spanking or the very serious reality that, once these staffers left, there would be almost no one to run the show but Bo Smith, the board held yet another emergency meeting on Friday, June 5. And this time, after far more rancorous debate, they decided that Bo must go.
The details of how the Denver Film Society will continue are still being hammered out — there were meetings over the weekend to talk about structure and the very-strapped budget, and on June 8, Erickson, who is acting as interim director, was crafting an official statement with Charmatz. (Watch for this statement and updates on the blog.) "People are back at their desks working," Erickson had told me earlier that day. "My role at this point is to just keep us moving forward, working on the programs." Those include not just the DIFF, slated to run from November 12-22, but also Film on the Rocks and the regular Wednesday-Sunday lineup at Starz FilmCenter, where the Denver Film Society has its office. "It's important that the patrons and the community know that the things that we've been doing for three decades we're going to continue to do," she adds. "There was never any stoppage of work."
Henderson was back in that office Monday, too, "consulting away," Erickson said, and deferring all questions to her. After ten days of whiplash, they had to be feeling that someone could still yank the chairs out from under them at any moment. But finally, it seems that the board is sticking with its decision — even if its members, like DFS staffers, are very reluctant to discuss recent events on the record. "We are looking for a permanent replacement, and will decide as a board on who we select...the sooner the better," Charmatz told me. "This is a time when the community and the press should support the arts as much as possible...a time for all of us to pull together. Without the arts and cultural organizations, we aren't a community."
But without the community that runs those cultural organizations, they don't exist at all.