Vail Film Festival, take 10
When you’re 10 years old, there are a few things you know. You know not to pick your boogers in front of anyone, lest you be made fun of. You know how to ride a bike without training wheels and that eating dirt sounds fun but actually tastes pretty gross. You’re still a kid, but you’ve learned enough to become skilled at a few things, like popping a wheelie in your driveway and writing a legible letter Q in cursive.The Vail Film Festival is now 10 years old, and not only has it learned a few things in its first decade, it’s become an expert at putting together a festival that entertains audiences and also attracts a wide variety of filmmakers. When the film festival debuted in 2004, Vail was just a tiny enclave on the side of a mountain no one had ever heard of and few paid attention to.Just kidding. Ten years ago Vail was as busy and bustling as ever, but brothers Sean and Scott Cross looked beyond the ski industry and saw an opportunity to add something special to Vail that it didn’t yet have: a premiere film festival along the likes of Sundance and Telluride. Hey, if setting a film festival outside of Hollywood in a small town known more for its skiing than filmmaking worked for Robert Redford, maybe it could work for the Cross siblings, too. As filmmakers themselves, the Cross brothers had a passion for films but no actual experience when it came to coordinating their own three-day movie marathon.”We’d never done a film festival before,” said Sean Cross, co-founder of the Vail Film Festival. “We felt there was a need for festivals to focus on independent film, like Sundance did at the beginning. A lot of festivals have become studio-driven and out of reach for independent filmmakers. We wanted to give a platform for truly independent films.”Keeping it ‘low-key’ “Truly independent” has been the festival’s motto since day one, and those involved from the beginning have always sought out films that won’t be shown at the Cineplex anytime soon. It may seem odd for a film festival to aspire to be an alternative to Sundance, the most well-known independent film festival in the U.S., but the founders were adamant about keeping the festival affordable and accessible. Many Vail entities like to describe themselves with words like “exclusive” and “elite,” but the film festival is one place where there’s no velvet rope between those who simply like watching films and those who make them. Kaye Ferry has been a board member for the Vail film festival since 2004 and is now board director.”People say they love the festival because it’s small and you can get into things,” Ferry said. “I’ve had a friend of mine go to Sundance three times and hasn’t seen a film yet. Here it’s small and intimate and we’ve kept it sort of low-key.”Making a name for the festival and filmmakersDespite its unassuming and laidback vibe, the festival has boasted quite a few big names since it’s first run. Actor Luke Wilson, known as the Wilson brother without the crooked nose (that would be Owen), brought his directorial debut “The Wendell Baker Story” to the festival for its premiere in 2006. The festival screened two of Judd Apatow’s films, “Knocked Up” in 2007, which he directed, and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” in 2008, which he produced, before the films were released in theaters and became box-office hits. Perhaps most memorable of festival attendees was Kevin Smith, an indie film director known for his ’90s cult classics “Clerks,” “Mallrats” and “Chasing Amy.” Smith received the Renegade Award at the festival in 2009.”(Kevin) is very rebellious and says whatever he wants,” Cross said. “We had a film critic who was doing a Q and A with Smith on stage. Kevin decided he wanted to hold hands with him the whole time (during the interview). It was one of the most bizarre experiences we’ve had.”Household names fill seats at screenings, but the festival is more interested in helping young filmmakers find an audience. Director and actor Blayne Weaver has had all three of his films premiere at the festival, starting with “Outside Sales” in 2006.”The (Vail Film Festival) was the first legitimizing factor for me as a director,” Weaver said. “After that the film went on the play dozens of film festivals, but Vail was the first. I needed some stamp of approval, and Vail did that for me.”Although the films are the focus, Weaver said the time in between screenings is the fun part.”You can’t beat the parties and the availability (with) other filmmakers to sit around and talk,” Weaver said. “I love being in a situation where we can have a couple of drinks and talk about the movies we just saw.”Increasing popularity and profits After numerous venue changes, festival organizers now feel as though they’ve found a central location in Vail Village. Festivalgoers can walk between screenings at Cinebistro and the Four Seasons, and it’s only a short drive to Vail Mountain School for the opening and closing night films. Now with an established name and a solid lineup of quality films, there’s one thing the festival would like to do that it hasn’t yet: turn a profit. As with many art-related endeavors, getting sponsors and attracting a large crowd is always a challenge. Ferry said the festival now averages 15,000 attendees each year, but limited funding makes it harder to expand the event beyond its current state.”If you have a lot of money to throw at something early on, it makes it easier,” Ferry said. “With an event like this, people don’t believe you can do it until you do it. And then you have to do it well several times. I think this year will be the real taking off. It’s been a long, slow process. I think we’re on the upswing of growth from here on in.”
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