Starz Denver Film Fest attendance, revenue up, Starz FilmCenter replacement search goes on

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Denver Film Society executive director Tom Botelho is still recovering from the just-concluded Starz Denver Film Festival; he's got a severe cold. But the word of mouth about the fest makes him feel better, and so do attendance and revenue figures, both of which appear to be up over last year. Still, plenty of questions remain -- particularly about how the event will replace the Starz FilmCenter, which the DFS must leave at month's end.

"We had a ten-year lease that was precipitated by Starz," Botelho says. "They made a $5 million commitment over ten years, and a lot of that money went to pay the lease. But that deal sunsets at the end of November."

Botelho admits that "we've been spoiled" by having access to the venue, in the old Tivoli building on the Auraria campus. Because the facility used to be a commercial multiplex, it offered numerous screens in a central location -- a boon that's hardly the norm at film fests across the country, he points out. As a result, movie lovers could spend the day going from screening to screening without ever having to leave the building.

Such convenience no doubt contributed to a 30 percent boost in patron membership, "where people pay $600 to get a lanyard that's pretty much a VIP pass to all the things we offer," Botelho notes. "And people take advantage of that opportunity. Our average patron went to twenty films during the festival, and 50 percent of our tickets were sold before we hit opening night. We hear about people having staycations in Denver and planning time off so they can really enjoy the festival. That's our core audience."

Although numbers are still being crunched to determine overall attendance at this writing, Botelho expects approximately 2 to 4 percent growth over last year, when more than 52,000 folks filled seats. He believes revenue will rise by about 4 percent as well, in part because of strong support at the beautiful new Denver FilmCenter/Colfax facility, use of the nearby L2 Arts and Culture Center, and special events like a Highlands Church screening of Wish Me Away, a documentary about country singer Chely Wright coming out as a lesbian, at which Wright was the featured speaker.

Another factor in the assorted upturns was the sheer number of films screened: 282, the highest total ever. But without the Starz FilmCenter, that figure could dip next year -- and fewer screenings may make it tough to match or exceed attendance and revenue totals next year and in the future.

To prevent such an eventuality, a DFS task force has been formed to line up new screens, with a target of February for an announcement. And while the festival treated this year's event as a goodbye to the Tivoli, Botelho doesn't write off the possibility of making an agreement to use the facility down the line. "I don't really know everything swirling around here about what the venue is going to be utilized for," he allows. "But it works perfectly for the festival, and we'd be happy to be back."

If not, Botelho says "we need at least five screens" to put on the kind of fest he envisions for 2012, and he's confident it'll happen.

"We really try hard in every dimension of the festival to bring the best we can to Denver," he says, "and I think we did that this year. The panels we had were really an upgrade, and we had 198 filmmakers and industry professionals take part. Pretty much 85 percent of the screenings had someone talking about their work, and that's what our audience has come to embrace. That's the kind of thing that makes the festival what it is."

Page down to see the winners of the juried awards at this year's festival.

Starz People's Choice Awards

Narrative Feature:

Kinyarwanda Directed by Alrick Brown

Six stories of terror and survival woven into a tapestry of human courage -- at once horrific and uplifting - set amid the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the Hutu ethnic majority killed almost a million Tutsis.

Documentary Feature:

Staging Hope: Acts of Peace in Northern Uganda Directed by Bill Yoelin

A moving documentary which follows a group of American actors to war-torn northern Uganda, where they lead Acholi teenagers from an internal displacement camp in a drama workshop. Dancing, singing, and telling their stories, the young people respond with exuberance- and courage.

Short Film:

Luminaris Directed by Juan Pablo Zaramella

A clever examination of light in all its forms by one of Latin America's leading animators.

Juried Awards

The jurors for the Krzysztof Kieslowski Award for Best Feature Film this year were filmmaker/AFFRM head, Ava duVernay; Carl Spence, Artistic Director of Seattle International Film Festival; and filmmaker/Lead Programmer for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Mike Ott.

The winner was the coming-of-age story about a 67-year-old man, Volcano (Denmark/Iceland), directed by Runar Runarsson. Set against the backdrop of an Icelandic coastal town decimated by a volcano in the 1970s, this understated but moving drama examines existential loss and familial reconnection. The jury offered the following statement:

"We applaud the festival on the stellar films chosen for consideration in this esteemed category. Each selection exemplifies distinct vision and strong directorial voice. However, one film captured our attention early on and stayed with us throughout the process. Our jury deliberation was brisk and unanimous. The winning film delivers a haunting portrait of a life in its final act, and the tragedy and triumph of one man's redemptive journey. The narrative provided quietly unexpected turns that reflect the true unpredictability of life, love, and loss. Anchored by an astounding performance by veteran actor Theodore Juliusson with masterful direction by first-time feature director Runar Runnarson, the winning film presents an unforgettable character rarely seen in cinema."

The Festival's documentary award, the Maysles Brothers Award for Best Documentary Film, named after the two renowned pioneers of the genre, Albert and David Maysles is presented each year to an outstanding documentary. The jury this year was comprised of Bob Byington, an Austin-based director, writer, and actor; Sarah Harris, senior programmer for the Dallas Film Society and the Dallas International Film Festival; and Filmmaker/Hampton's Film Festival Programmer, Cameron Yates.

The recipient of the 2011 Maysles Brothers Award for Best Documentary Film was awarded to the deeply troubling, amusing, and rousing all at the same time, You've Been Trumped, directed by Anthony Baxter. The jury provided the following statement:

"This year's documentary competition covered many important issues and ideas, creating a lively discussion for our jury during deliberation. In the end, we decided upon a film that tells a story about a greedy capitalist and a community trying to save its home. We admired the filmmaker's perseverance and his reluctance to insert himself into the David and Goliath story.

The New Directors Award is given to an American director with no more than three previous films that best display originality, artistic excellence and visual awareness, while maintaining a consistent directorial vision and technical proficiency. The 2011 New Directors Award was awarded to Sophia Takal for Green. The jury cited Takal for a unique, suspenseful exploration of personal dynamics, Green defies easy categorization with its visual style, controlled performances and tonal shifts. We enthusiastically look forward to what filmmaker Sophia Takal does next.

Additionally, a Special Jury Prize was awarded to director Alison Bagnall and performers Olly Alexander and Greta Gerwig for The Dish And The Spoon. The jury cited they recognize the collaborative spirit with which they approached creating characters that have a startling spectrum of emotional colors.

The award was juried by John Wildman, senior publicist for The Film Society of Lincoln Center and FSLC's New York Film Festival; Mark Olsen, writer for The Los Angeles Times; and John Bernstein, senior producer of Creative Content at Walt Disney Studios.

The 2011 Spike Lee Student Filmmaker Award, curated by Wade Gardner and Josh Weinberg, was juried by David Zellner, a filmmaker who has written, produced, directed and edited numerous films and music videos which have screened at festivals worldwide; Rosie Wong, an independent producer and the Senior Manager of the Sundance Film Festival Industry Office; and Peter Van Steemburg, Director of Acquisitions at Magnolia Pictures and Magnet Releasing, present the award to director Huay-Bing Law for Benny. The jury states that it successfully created a delicate poignancy within the limits of a short format. The sensitive portrayal of Benny is not so much a coming-of-age story, but more of a self-examination of life's shortcomings. Benny is a nicely bookended film, a complete vignette within a larger story.

The 3rd annual ASIFA-Colorado Prize for the Best Animated Short Award went to Sunday (Dimanche) directed by Patrick Doyon for its wry humor and larger than life appeal. Created in a simple yet powerful style, the film features a wonderful storyline of a young boy creating his own form of entertainment when his family makes it weekly trek to visit the grandparents. The competition was sponsored by Bloom Animatiom and Mighty Fudge Studios.

Jury members for this award were Evert Brown, freelance director and instructor at Art Institute of Colorado; Ed Desroches, an animator, Web designer and instructor; Judy Gardner, professor at Art Institute of Colorado and Metropolitan State College of Denver; Joey Buhrer, and animator and ASIFA-Colorado Board member; Wes Price, illustrator and animator; and Patrick Mallek, Boulder International Film Festival animation programmer.

The festival's newly established Liberty Global International Student Short Award was awarded to Australian filmmaker, Ariel Kleiman from the Victoria College of the Arts, for his haunting portrayal of life inside a Russian submarine in Deeper Than Yesterday. This unsettling tale of rising tensions among Russian sailors during a long voyage on the open sea is a powerful example of the short form at its very best. The pacing, acting, production design and narrative unfolding of Deeper Than Yesterday were extremely impressive.

The jury chose to give a special mention for acting to Israeli filmmaker Inbal Gibrolter from Sapir College for her film Floating (Latzuf). Floating profiles two girls, one obese and one anorexic, as they form a supportive friendship in a children's hospital ward.

Jury members for this award included Critic, Filmmaker, and Executive Director of the World Cinema Foundation, Kent Jones; Senior Vice President of Programming at Liberty Global, Robert Leighton; and Producer Chris Romano.

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More from our Television & Film archive: "Starz Denver Film Festival: Wishes come true with Chely Wright's Wish Me Away appearance."

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