Stepping Back In Time With The Denver Film Festival

One of Denver’s greatest cultural traditions is the Denver Film Festival, which is going into its 40th year. But how did it get started? Who’s responsible for creating this important yearly event that’s right in our own backyard? To answer that, you’d have to do a little digging. Or at the very least, read some of Larry Laszlo’s book, “Take 30: The First Three Decades of the Denver International Film Festival.”

40th Anniversary Denver Film Festival
Image taken from Denver Film Festival Facebook

According to Laszlo (and Ron Henderson, who had his share of things to say about the fest’s humble beginnings), the story began one day in 1977. Peter Warren, then a math professor at the University of Denver, was on a bike ride with Irene Clurman, an art critic for the Rocky Mountain News. The two were chatting all things arts and film in Denver when Warren had his big idea: to start a film festival right there in the Mile High City.

Warren was nothing if not a determined and driven individual. He called up a few friends over to his apartment in Washington Park to start brainstorming. First idea? A festival can’t happen for free, so they would need sponsors. Warren hit up his buddy Medill Barnes, the publisher of the now-defunct Straight Creek Journal, for advice. Barnes introduced Warren to some of his own connections at 1st of Denver Bank, including Arthur Lucey, who happened to love film at least as much as Warren. Lucey made sure to facilitate 1st of Denver becoming the festival’s first official sponsor.

From there, Warren recognized that he still needed some volunteers to help run the show–especially since it was not yet anywhere near profitable. He tapped Ron Henderson as the Director of PR and Joey Porcelli, who created the first festival poster and souvenir program. Then there was Laszlo himself, who took on the role of official photographer for the event, including shooting emerging filmmakers and celebrities galore.

Emma Stone Red Carpet Denver Film Festival
Photo credit: Denver Film Festival, DenverFilm.org | Photo by Coreen Zuniga

They also needed a venue and back then, Denver boasted a number of quality independent cinemas throughout town. So while they may have had their pick of the litter, Warren chose the Centre Theatre located downtown to be the venue for opening night, while the rest of the festival was spread out at the now-defunct Vogue Theater and Flick in Larimer Square, as well as at the Ogden Theater, which now houses more hipster bands than anything else. There was no red carpet and zero celebrities that night. But to everyone involved, including those attending, it was a complete success.

History of Denver Film Festival Ogden Theater
Photo credit: Denver Film Festival, DenverFilm.org

Warren, Henderson, and others continued to make each subsequent festival better and better. The Denver Film Society (which runs the festival) eventually found a home at the Starz FilmCenter over in the Tivoli Student Union in 2002, 

where the festival showcased incredible films and hosted some of Hollywood’s top talent. By 2011, though, they had moved to their new location at the Sie FilmCenter, which is where this year’s festival will take place and where stars like Kyra Sedgwick, Bill Pullman, and Aaron Sorkin will be in attendance. And while the festival’s creator has since passed away, his legacy lives on through the work of Festival Director Britta Erickson, Executive Director Andrew Rogers, and Artistic Director Brit Withey. From a small idea during a bike ride, to one of Denver’s most impressive festivals, this year’s 40th Denver Film Festival is sure to be another one for the books.

Bill Murray Denver Film Festival
Photo credit: Denver Film Festival, DenverFilm.org

Check out this year’s Denver Film Festival, running November 1st-12th at multiple venues, including the Sie FilmCenter. Read about all the films and purchase tickets here.