In 1998, Robin and Kathy Beeck made a short documentary about a man whose corpse was kept frozen inside a shed of a small mountain town. In 2003, the sisters updated the film into a feature documentary, “Grandpa’s Still in the Tuff Shed,” and hit the film festival circuit. Enchanted with the experience, they set out to bring that atmosphere back home, to Boulder, Colorado.
“We were right,” Robin says of the Boulder International Film Festival, now in its seventh year. “This town was hungry for some great films and there’s not a lot of independent film outlets here. This is exactly the audience these films are looking for.”
The Beecks weren't the first to recognize that audience. In Colorado alone, the cities of Denver, Telluride, Breckenridge and Aspen all boast strong, older and more established festivals. Neighboring Utah, of course, has Sundance and Slamdance.
Even so, finding their audience hasn't been easy. Ask the sisters about their biggest challenge and they respond in unison: Educating the audience. “I even had questions from people saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know I could go to that. I thought I had to be an exclusive person.’” Kathy says. “When you don’t live in a town that has a film festival, it takes a few years for them to realize what a festival is.”
Creating that festival culture is still a problem. When asked if she was attending this year's edition, a university student replied: “I didn’t know it was something ‘civilians’ could go to.”
Nonetheless, local support has grown. “We’ve increased our revenues every year since we started, and increased them pretty substantially," says Kathy. "Bringing in the national sponsors is always important, but we have a strong base of local businesses that really want to see us succeed and the city of Boulder has been very supportive as well."
With a fluctuating student population, BIFF found stability by targeting senior citizens and high school students. Additionally, the volunteer program allows local residents to get involved. “We have a core staff of 25 volunteers that make this festival happen," says Robin. "A number of them have been with us year after year. Making sure they are happy is very important to us."
And then there's the films. “What it comes down to is programming,” Kathy says. “It is the basis of everything. If your program isn’t outstanding, if you can’t get the best films out there available to you, then you have no foundation.
For now, that means a BIFF slate that's crowdpleasing but not groundbreaking. Programming plays it safe for the most part, offering a roundup of films that have enjoyed some measure of success in the festival scene. Publicity for this year’s festival boasted "five films coming straight from Sundance.” That might be a draw for casual
filmgoers, but the savvy cinephile could easily question the “freshness” of Boulder’s lineup.
And BIFF is far from the only opportunity for local audiences to enjoy independent film. A cultural landmark for 70 years, Boulder’s International Film Series operates from the University of Colorado nearly year-round, taking only a summer hiatus. Screenings of 35mm prints are held five days a week, with a low admission price and a
program that balances repertory films with festival circuit standouts, with personal appearances by filmmakers like John Cameron Mitchell, Derek Cianfrance, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Agnes Varda. A new arthouse cinema is also reportedly scheduled to open later this year.
Yet what the festival lacks in innovation it makes up through presentation. BIFF knows how to market itself, and most of all, how to reach and engage its core audience. Politically, the city leans to the left, with pockets of fair-weather and genuine activism. A slew of issue-oriented films make up the festival's Call 2 Action section. Panel discussions are held after some screenings in the section and all the films are represented with their issue-specific opportunities for viewers to become involved.
The festival is also making a more concentrated effort to attract celebrity honorees. Alec Baldwin was last year's big name. (“I only heard about [the festival] last year because Alec Baldwin was coming,” confessed Boulder resident Bradley Scott.) This year, Oliver Stone agreed to receive a Master of Cinema award from the festival. And one of the most popular events was “A Conversation with James Franco,” which sold out despite a $30 ticket price.
So far, BIFF's primary role seems to be bringing festival culture to Boulder rather than bringing Boulder into the festival circuit. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The festival's potential to grow is perhaps its biggest asset. “Some of the bigger festivals don’t have the infrastructure to hold their growth,” says Kathy, a factor she claims is not a problem with Boulder.
“We are on a good trajectory right now," says Kathy. "We want to grow the programs that make us stand out, bring in more industry people, more great filmmakers and great films, and great celebrities. I think we’re on the right path."
Ultimately, Robin says, their festival centers on “making the filmmaker happy. They are the most important people at this festival.”
However, Marty Mapes, founder of moviehabit.com and jury president for the 2011 edition of BIFF, says the festival's success will come down to those who watch the filmmakers' works. "I think the Beeck sisters want [the festival] to primarily appeal to filmmakers," he says, "but the people who will pay to come down to see a movie are the people who live in Boulder.”