The 45th Denver Film Festival opens with a chance to soar again in 2023

Film festivals are always on the move, catching up to and launching trends, churning out themes, and hawking tickets to please longtime members and mint new ones.

The Denver Film Festival has shifted more than most. When its 45th event opens on Wednesday, Nov. 2, it will have survived leadership turnover, staff defections and two years of pandemic upheaval at its nonprofit producer, Denver Film, to present its 200-plus titles — all of them in person this year.

“We’ve got a relatively young, green staff, which I see as a positive,” said Kevin Smith, CEO of Denver Film. “They bring an energy and excitement around what we’re doing, and it’s been wonderful to open up that pool of applicants as part of our DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts.”

Smith, formerly Denver Film’s marketing guru, acknowledged that a half dozen or so staff members and contract workers have left in recent months, some acrimoniously, but he hopes to steady the ship. He was named CEO in May, following the departure of James Mejia, who lasted only about 17 months in the position.

Prior to that, Denver Film was run by Andrew Rodgers, who resigned amid a period of tragedy and other shake-ups at Denver Film, following the car-accident death of artistic director Brit Withey. Longtime festival director Britta Erickson also stepped down, leaving Smith as de facto director last year.

The festival’s Nov. 2-13 schedule, which kicks off with the red-carpet screening of James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Nov. 2, leaves room for reinvention amid its globe-spanning features, shorts, documentaries, panels and filmmaker talk-backs.

Whether that’s a good thing is up to viewers.

Gone this year — and with regrets from artistic director Matthew Campbell — is the virtual program that allowed viewers across the state to catch screenings. Distributors have been pushing hard for in-theater screenings and limiting titles based on that, Campbell said, leaving virtual attendees in the dust.

Also different this year: The screenings, parties and virtual reality typically taking place at the McNichols Civic Center Building have been moved to the Sie FilmCenter, Denver Film’s home base, as well as to the next-door Tattered Cover bookstore. Other screenings will take place at the AMC 9+10 and Denver Botanic Gardens, as in years past.

The good news? The lineup is muscular and socially conscious. In addition to the fly-on-the-wall family drama “Armageddon Time,” starring Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong, other red carpet presentations at the Ellie include “Empire of Light” by director Sam Mendes, starring Michael Ward, Olivia Colman and Colin Firth (centerpiece, Nov. 4); and “Women Talking” by director Sarah Polley, starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Frances McDormand, about confronting sexual assault in an isolated religious colony (closing night, Nov. 12).

A last-minute addition is “The Holly,” author-director Julian Rubinstein’s documentary about Denver’s gang scene as viewed through North Park Hill Bloods. A previous screening sold out so quickly that a red carpet slot was announced for Nov. 10, pushing a screening of “Loudmouth,” a documentary about Al Sharpton, to the Sie FilmCenter. (Sharpton canceled his appearance at the festival earlier this month).

Special Presentation screenings, as Denver Film calls them, are just as magnetic. “She Said” (Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan) looks at the roots of the ongoing #MeToo movement, while “The Son” (Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern) delves into mental health crises and family dynamics. “The Whale,” starring Brendan Fraser (Nov. 12 and already sold out) will include a post-show award ceremony for writer Samuel Hunter. Notably, the film is based on Hunter’s play that had its world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company in 2012.

Hunter will arrive alongside playwright-actor Raúl Castillo (“Inspection,” HBO’s “Looking”); actor Sheila McCarthy (who appears in “Women Talking”); and minimalist legend James Benning (too many films to count), among others. The international showcase brings back its Italian lineup, along with Irish and U.K. titles. Mini-fests such as CinemaQ, Women+Film, and the Dragon Boat Film Festival will also be represented in programming and discussions about race, abortion, sexuality, gender, LGBTQ rights and more.

A Colorado spotlight section vaunts enticing local titles such as Alexandre O. Philippe’s “Lynch/Oz,” Netflix’s “How to Build a Sex Room,” and shorts by Usama Alshaibi, Kelly Sears and others. Particularly appealing: Beret E. Strong and Katrina Miller’s “This Is (Not) Who We Are,” about institutional racism in Boulder.

More good news: Interest is up compared to last year’s relatively earthbound event. Pre-pandemic, Denver Film Festival collected about $380,000 in ticketing revenue in 2018, followed by $350,000 in 2019. That comes out to an  average of 35,000 tickets per festival, Smith said, and this year’s sales are already in line to meet or surpass that, with multiple sell-outs and tickets sold to every single event at the festival.

In addition, Denver Film’s Summer Scream fundraiser at Lakeside Amusement Park smashed previous records. With an immersive theme tapping 50 local artists, the 21-and-up event did just under $200,000 in revenue and drew more than 3,000 attendees. The previous fundraising record from the event was $67,000, Smith said.

Chris Getzan, co-programmer of Summer Scream, will return for the fest with an innovative speaker series called Stories from Interesting Times, which collects diverse personalities and is aimed at delving deep into thorny topics of the day.

“I hope it’s going to push some buttons, and get folks to second-guess their assumptions about things — what they see, how they see it,” said Getzen, who organized the talks under themes such as News, Work, Art and Food.

Whatever it looks like after the festival ends on Nov. 13, Denver Film will have reasserted itself as the city’s biggest champion of film. Or so they hope.

“We were lucky to even pull off the event last year because we were sandwiched between the Delta and Omicron variants,” Campbell said. “So we were on eggshells the whole time. Would we have to cancel? What’s the protocol? Of course, we’re not done with the pandemic yet, but hopefully we can let our hair down a little more this time.”

If you go

45th Denver Film Festival. Presented by Denver Film, with 200-plus features, documentaries, shorts, music videos, virtual reality and other content screening in person. Nov. 2-13 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 E. Colfax Ave., as well as the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Botanic Gardens, AMC 9+10 and Tattered Cover Colfax.

Tickets: $2,000 for all-access pass, $450 for the Mile High pass; $250 for the festival-ending pass; $75 for individual red carpet screenings; and $11-$25 for all others. Prices discounted for members. Call 720-381-0819 or go to for tickets, the full lineup and updated schedule.

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