Michael “Brit” Withey, the artistic director of the Denver Film Society, died Sunday in a car accident in Colorado. He was 50. Withey was a well-known figure in the Denver film community who worked for the Denver Film Society for 23 years. The nonprofit is responsible for the Denver Film Festival, local screening series, and other Colorado film events.
News of Withey’s death, which was first reported in The Denver Post, jarred the festival world Monday. In Denver, where the June television festival Seriesfest was preparing for a board meeting, the news left many of Withey’s longtime colleagues in shock, while processing the memories of his legacy at the festival, providing a microcosm of the long-term impact of regional programmers on their local audiences.
“He was a singular irreplaceable human, first and foremost,” said festival director Britta Erickson in a phone interview. “The amount of mentorship that he gave to so many people coming up as programmers or other aspects of the film society and the festival was just incomparable.”
Withey traveled to Berlin and Cannes each year to bring a range of international films back to the festival for a popular program that focused on different countries each year. He was known for showcasing dark, edgy work. “It was a bit of a dichotomy,” Erickson said. “If you watched his programming, you might think he had a dark soul — but he was one of the most loving, compassionate, caring people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”
Withey started working for the festival as a volunteer in the mid-’90s, when he moved to Colorado from Iowa. Denver Film Society founder Ron Henderson quickly elevated Withey to membership director. He created the first website for the festival, and was later elevated to a top programming position when Henderson retired.
Withey was one of several top staffers who resigned from the organization in 2009, in a showdown with executive director Burleigh Smith over managerial decisions. Withey and Erickson both returned to their positions in time for the festival that fall, when Smith was replaced by Tom Botelho. In recent years, the festival’s attendance has expanded as audiences have skewed younger. The festival reported a 20 percent increase in ticket sales for its 40th anniversary in 2017, and it has gained currency on the awards circuit, attracting high-profile names like “The Favourite” star Emma Stone last fall.
“Brit loved filmmakers,” Erickson said. “He didn’t have a taste for the glitz and glamour of things, but we did make him put on a suit and walk the red carpet every year. He felt most comfortable introducing the cinema he was most excited about.”
In recent years, he put together comprehensive programs for the festival that threw the spotlight on Spain, Poland, Hungary, and Denmark. He also showed the occasional interest in lighter fare, including a mini-retrospective on French directors Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon.
“I’ve been hearing from so many people who basically just chose their festival schedule based on what Brit programmed, because they knew they’d be challenged,” Erickson said. “He was always up for the conversation afterward, even if they were shocked. He had a knack for not taking that personally. He reveled in the opportunity to have that dialogue.”
Withey was also known for his culinary cinema program, which was often paired with food from local restaurants. One of the recent selections was Eric Khoo’s “Ramen Shop.” The program had personal ramifications for Withey, who was married to local food writer Ruth Tobias. “It became a love letter to Ruth,” Erickson said.
Withey was returning from vacation in New Mexico when the crash took place on Sunday. Prior to his departure, he had completed programming for the film society’s upcoming Women+ Film Festival, which runs April 9-14. Erickson said the festival would continue as planned, and the film society would be putting together an endowment in his name.
According to a police report cited by The Denver Post, Withey was driving alone on Sunday when his car crossed the southbound lane and hit two trees before coming to a stop. He was declared dead at the scene, but had been wearing a seatbelt. Police did not find any indication of drugs, alcohol, or speeding as factors in the crash.
The Denver Film Society released the following statement: “The Denver Film Society and the entire film industry community are mourning the loss of our longtime friend and Denver Film Festival Artistic Director Brit Withey who was killed in a single-car accident on Sunday, March 31 while returning to Denver from a vacation in New Mexico. Brit was a highly respected artistic director who lived and breathed film. He traveled the world to watch, learn and bring his creative vision back to Colorado where he curated award-winning Festival lineups for Colorado film-lovers for more than two decades. There are no words to describe the loss that his family, friends and our community are going through. Our prayers are with Brit’s partner, Ruth, and his entire extended family. We will share additional information regarding memorial services and tributes to honor Brit as it becomes available.”