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Film Fest puts up strong showing

Don Cohen

At the beginning of April, my wife and I attended the inaugural Vail Film Festival. We are avid and adventurous film goers who every year have threatened to go to Sundance or Telluride but somehow haven’t yet made it there. So when we learned about this new festival starting up, I got out my charge card and hit the Web for screening passes.

Like most startup projects, the film festival had some organizational challenges. The Web site could have been more efficient, the program schedule more easy to decipher, and the matching of audience to theater size better calculated. However, these are minor quibbles.

What really, really surprised us was how well attended the festival was. It surprised the organizers, too. Attendance was nearly double their expectations.



I was struck by how few locals we saw at the screenings. But, you know, that really wasn’t a bad thing. Actually, it was a great thing. That’s because so many of the people we saw were in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They were young, hip, energetic, educated and clearly upwardly affluent. Additionally, for some whom I talked to, this was their first trip to Vail.

This is exactly the kind of group our resort economy should be attracting. And the story gets even better. The organizers wisely chose early April for the festival date because of the easier availability of lodging, meeting rooms, and movie theaters. Attendance was estimated at approximately 5,000. Considering that the large majority of attendees was from out of town, that’s a significant number of room nights, dinners, car rentals and lift tickets during the transition into the spring off-season.



About a week after the festival ended, I spoke with Sean Cross. He, along with his brother Scott and friend Denis Jensen, organized the festival. The Cross brothers are independent filmmakers working out of New York but have strong Colorado ties with family in Boulder. They’ve been coming to Vail for over a decade and, when kicking around the idea of putting an independent film festival together, thought that Vail would be a great location.

The Crosses bet the Vail name would be a strong draw. Boy, how right they were. While many film festivals only get sent the films, the Vail festival also attracted the directors, producers and talent who made the movies. One endearingly warm family film, “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town,” was enhanced by director John Shultz introducing his film. Immediately afterward there was a lively discussion with Schultz, who was joined by his young star, Jonathan Lipnicki, who played the precociously cute child in “Jerry McGuire,” still dressed in his snowboard gear.

Sean Cross estimated that there are probably 400 film festivals throughout the United States each year. Many are much smaller affairs, often grouped around a collection of specific films. Under the Cross’ vision, the Vail Film Festival started out immediately well ahead of the pack by focusing on independent films.



Independent films are increasingly becoming a critical component of the entertainment landscape.

Three factors are feeding this rapid growth. The first is that average Hollywood productions now hover in the $50 million range. The second is that there are increasing outlets for independent filmmakers to find audiences and profitability (cable TV, art houses, DVD, Web). Finally, digital technology like high definition video cameras and sophisticated desktop computer editing software has lowered the production cost barriers.

More and more, thanks to local movie theater owner Steve Lindstrom, independent films are finding their way to our valley movie houses. In this past year films like “Winged Migration,” “The Fog of War” and “Touching the Void” have played locally. It used to be that if you wanted to see great films like these, you’d have to traipse down to Denver.

For its first year the Vail Film Festival kept a decidedly low profile in the community. Behind the scenes they had help from the town of Vail, Vail Resorts, the Vail Chamber and Business Association, The Colorado Film Commission and a small group of local volunteers. The festival organizers proved that the concept can work. Given the valley’s proven track record in creating world-class cultural programming, adding film to music, dance, and theater festivals makes perfect sense.

Clearly, independent films are becoming hot commodities. It’s exciting to think that Vail could be in the forefront of this industry’s next growth phase. Looking at the future of the valley economy, the best news I got in my conversation with Sean Cross is that they’re already gearing up for next year. The festival organizers took a big leap of faith and a big financial risk to launch this venture.

Now that they’ve got some traction, I would encourage our businesses and local film lovers to help the festival deepen its roots in our community and brighten its star on the national independent film scene.

Don Cohen is a Colorado native, entrepreneur and former high-tech CEO. He is executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council and can be reached by e-mail at dcohen@vvec.org.


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