Aspen Film hires three guest programmers to helm festivals

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Aspen Film Executive Director John Thew.
Courtesy photo |

Three guest programmers with long histories in the film industry will helm Aspen Film’s upcoming festivals in 2016 and 2017, the organization announced Wednesday.

The programming trio comes on board after a recent exodus at Aspen Film. Five employees, including artistic director Maggie Mackay, and six board members left the organization between last fall and the beginning of this summer.

Rachel Chanoff — founder of the New York- and London-based production company The Office, with programming experience at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Williams College, the Sundance Institute, the New York Jewish Film Festival and elsewhere — will serve as director of programming for the 38th annual Aspen Filmfest, running Sept. 21 to 25.

For Aspen Film Academy Screenings, taking place Dec. 21 through Jan. 1 and celebrating its 25th year, film selection will be overseen by Jane Schoettle. She is an international programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, who has served on juries at SXSW and as a script consultant.

And Kathleen McInnis will program the 2017 Aspen Shortsfest, with screenings from April 5 to 9. McInnis programs shorts for the Toronto International Film Festival and has worked on Slamdance Film Festival, Palm Springs ShortFest and the Seattle International Film Festival.

“I can’t believe we were able to get all three of them,” Aspen Film executive director John Thew said Wednesday. “It’s just amazing.”

Aspen Film conducted a national search for programmers after Mackay resigned as its artistic director in May. She left the post after 10 months to become executive director of the Vidiots Foundation in Santa Monica.

“Aspen is such an incredible town and (Aspen Film) is doing amazing work, I’m crossing my fingers and toes that things settle in a great way,” Mackay wrote in an email in May.

The nonprofit’s operations manager, development director, programming coordinator and marketing director also left in the year after Thew took over as executive director of the nonprofit in May 2015. This left the organization with three employees in its Red Brick Center office. Thew said each of the departures was linked to individual life and career choices for the employees and not to an organizational issue.

“I wish I could say, ‘Oh gosh, it was all this one thing,’” he said Wednesday. “It’s just the nonprofit scene in Aspen. People move all over the place.”

Aspen Film also recently hired a new full-time programming coordinator who is coming off of three years with the Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled to start Aug. 1.

Thew said that the six resignations from the nonprofit’s board resulted from a natural shift at Aspen Film after he took over as executive director last year.

“Whenever there’s new leadership in an organization, there’s a shift,” he said. “And that was just part of it. The board we have is extremely strong and engaged.”

The hirings of Chanoff, Schoettle and McInnis on the programming side came on the heels of an announcement that a national public relations firm will handle Aspen Film’s marketing. Los Angeles- and New York-based BWR Public Relations will take over the role most recently held by locally based Katie Shapiro Media. BWR’s film clients include the Palm Springs International Film Festival and festivals in Savannah, Seattle and Sun Valley.

“The minute I sat down with them, they completely got Aspen,” Thew said. “They’re completely used to going into these towns like Napa and Palm Springs and other resort communities.”

Nikki Boxer, who took over as Aspen Film’s development director last fall, also is taking on some marketing duties for the organization. Additionally, the organization is currently undergoing a long-term strategic plan with the help of a consultant.

The festival programmers and the public relations firm are all on one-year contracts. But, Thew said, if they work out as well as he hopes, the organization will stick with them rather than hire a full-time Aspen-based artistic director.

“These independent contractors bring a level of talent into the organization that we probably could not get if we had to pay full-time salaries and move them here and all of that,” he said. “The verdict is still out, but it’s a model that I’m very interested in. This year will be our little experiment.”

In the course of interviewing Chanoff, the incoming Filmfest programmer, she and Thew realized that they had worked together in Off-Broadway theater during the 1980s.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I know you,’” said Thew, “and when I found that she was heavily involved with Sundance and that we were on the same page, it was a no-brainer.”

Schoettle and McInnis, who will respectively oversee Academy Screenings and Shortsfest, were acquainted with one another through their work in Toronto. Thew said both were excited about following in the footsteps of George Eldred and Laura Thielen, Aspen Film’s longtime leaders who retired in March 2015 after 20 years with the organization.

Upcoming Aspen Film events include a July 25 screening of “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” in the ongoing New Views documentary series at Paepcke Auditorium and an Aug. 3 presentation of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” as part of the monthly Indie Showcase series at the Isis Theater.

The Aspen Filmfest lineup is scheduled for release Aug. 30. Member pre-sales begin Sept. 2, with general public tickets on sale Sept. 7.