VAIL — Sitting in a darkened theater, it’s possible to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds that are projected onto the screen, becoming part of the story that comes to life. It’s easy to get swept away, forgetting that people have created those worlds, storytellers who have a desire to share a few minutes — or more — to provoke, to inspire or to amuse.
The Vail Film Festival, now in its 11th year, is an opportunity to not only become part of the stories that are presented, but also to get to know the directors, actors and other magicians who bring those tales to life. Taking place Thursday through Sunday, the Vail Film Festival is about the films, yes, but it’s almost like a film itself, with directors, stars, a stunning location and an eager audience.
For festival co-founder Sean Cross, creating a successful event starts with the filmmakers, both upcoming and established.
“We’ve always believed in supporting new filmmakers,” Cross said. “The most exciting thing for us is to see filmmakers in our festival come back, to see how the festival helped them on the path to becoming filmmakers.”
The list of Vail Film Festival alumni is long. Many of the filmmakers make their debuts at the festival with one category of film and then return in a different category; in some cases, the return is in a different capacity all together.
One such alumnus is director Andrew Putschoegl, who attended the festival in 2011 with his short film “Hello Caller.” He’s returning with a full-length feature called “BFFs,” which follows two friends who pretend to be lovers during a couple’s weekend workshop.
“That (showing of “Hello Caller”) was the first time I had been to Vail, let alone the film festival,” Putschoegl said. “It was a great experience. I’m excited to be coming back with a feature. I’m honored to be a part of this year’s festival.”
The film festival consists of four categories of films: features, documentaries, short films and student films. The genres range from comedies to dramas to psychological thrillers, some set in the past and one, “Locke,” that’s filmed entirely in a car.
“We try and program a good mix because a lot of independent films can be relatively dark, and we want to make sure it’s not all dark films,” explained Cross. “We like to have a variety, even in terms of themes, so you’re not watching the same type of film throughout the festival — you have a lot of diversity.”
The right formula is important. After all, the films — and their directors — are the stars of the weekend, the ones the audience is coming to see.
For the stars of the Vail Film Festival, the event is an opportunity to interact with other directors and meet the audiences that are seeing the results of months — or years — of work.
“Filmmakers and actors that attend the festival really want to be here and want to interact with people and talk about their films,” Cross said. “These films take a long time to make — it’s a long process, so it’s really a highlight to show their films to people.”
It’s a time not only to share the film with the general audience but to interact with other filmmakers, an opportunity that many directors anticipate.
“There’s a spirit of togetherness and, in the independent world, a real community,” explained Putschoegl. “Film festivals are a chance to meet other filmmakers, to have them tell you about their film. You want to see it and then, two hours later, you’re in the theater with that person, seeing what they’ve worked on, and then they come support you as well. It’s invigorating.”
For documentary filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White, whose film “The Case Against 8” will make its Colorado premier at the Vail Film Festival, screening the film is like “presenting your baby to the world.”
An inside look into the case to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage, while following the unlikely team that took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court, Cotner and White have been making “The Case Against 8” since 2009, when the case was first filed.
“It’s a huge passion for us, one that we devoted the last five years to,” White said. “We want people to enjoy it and be entertained, but also to start a conversation.”
“A lot of the takeaway that we’ve had so far is that people are inspired to take action and not just on this cause,” Cotner said. “I think the film shows that people can make a difference, that progress can be made in a lot of ways.”
More than a film about gay marriage, “The Case Against 8” is a legal drama, illustrating how the legal system in America works.
“Some of the most intriguing comments that we’ve gotten are from straight married people,” White said. “It’s a love story, a film about marriage in general. I’ve had people telling us, ‘It got me thinking about our own marriage a lot.’ I had one person tell me that they wished they could get married all over again after watching the film.”
Director Miranda Bailey, whose short film “Another Happy Anniversary” is playing at this year’s festival, is no stranger to Vail or the Vail Film Festival. A writer, actress, producer and now director, it’s a personal thing to have her narrative directorial debut screen in Vail.
“It’s really important for me, honestly; I think I would have been very sad if it had not played at the Vail Film Festival,” Bailey said. “Vail is my hometown. It’s so great that there is a film fest there — there wasn’t when I grew up. It’s such the right atmosphere.”
Perhaps more so for Bailey, who named the main characters in her film after her parents.
“I did name the characters after my parents, but it has nothing to do with them,” she laughed. “Any locals that know my parents, just know that it’s not the real Tom and Jeanne.“
But it’s not necessary to have actual family in town to have a sociable experience. “Vail has a familial feel in that the people who put it together every year are such a tight knit community and it shows,” Putschoegl said. “Everyone is approachable and easy to get along with, and there’s not as much pretension as there can be at some film festivals. It’s a nice, refreshing thing.”
Every film — and film fest — requires an audience to make it come alive. After all, a film is just a reel of celluloid if it’s shown with no one watching.
The Vail Film Festival kicks off on Thursday with the Colorado premier of “Before I Disappear” at the Vail Mountain School. The rest of the selections, some 20 films of varying lengths, subjects and genres, will be screened at the Four Seasons Resort in Vail as well as the Vail Mountain School. Other highlights include a festival hospitality lounge at the Four Seasons Vail where filmmakers and attendees can interact at a closing night party on Saturday.
Passes for the Vail Film Festival are available in a variety of options, ranging from the $50 Vista Pass to the $450 Gold Patron Pass. If unoccupied seats remain 15 minutes before showtime, then individual tickets will be sold for $10 on a first come, first seated basis. Passes are available for purchase online at www.vailfilmfestival.com.