Aspen Film’s new artistic director premieres at Filmfest

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Maggie Mackay
Courtesy photo |

If You Go….

What: Aspen Filmfest opening reception

Where: Harris Hall lobby

When: Friday, Sept. 25, 4-5 p.m.

How much: Free

More info: The reception will be followed by the festival’s opening night documentary, “City of Gold,” screening in Paepcke Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 ($12 for Aspen Film members); the opening night feature, “Room,” plays at 8:15 p.m.;

The 2015 Aspen Filmfest marks both the first for new artistic director Maggie Mackay and the last for its longtime directors George Eldred and Laura Thielen in an official capacity.

The six-day film festival, which opens Friday, is the last of Aspen Film’s events with the pair’s artistic fingerprints on it. As Mackay begins her tenure, she said she hopes to carry on the good taste and quality that characterized programming during Eldred and Thielen’s 20 years at Aspen Film’s helm.

“Primarily I want to maintain George and Laura’s incredible standards and build on that,” Mackay said over coffee at the Aspen Art Museum’s rooftop cafe.

Mackay, director of the Independent Spirit Awards and senior programmer of the Los Angeles Film Festival, joined Aspen Film in August, taking over as its top creative executive. John Thew, formerly managing director at Theatre Aspen, signed on as executive director in July.

Mackay had gotten to know Aspen Film through Thielen, who has been on nominating committees for the Spirit Awards.

“I’ve known Laura for a long time and our relationship is based on a mutual appreciation and love for film,” she said. “Laura has always been a trusted colleague of mine.”

When filmmakers call her at Film Independent and ask for advice about getting traction on a short film, Mackay said she directs them to try and get into Aspen Shortsfest.

“Shortsfest is one of the best festivals in the country, and it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to take this job,” she said. “You look at how important making shorts is to so many filmmakers — that’s their launching pad. And I love it as a format.”

She was impressed by the way that Aspen Film has nurtured long-term relationships with filmmakers — Jason Reitman and Destin Cretton among them — from their early days making shorts through their careers. She hopes to carry on that tradition.

Mackay, 40, will split her time between Aspen and Los Angeles, retaining her post at Film Independent and keeping one foot in the movie industry, representing Aspen Film’s interests in Hollywood.

“It makes it easier to stay on top of things from the get-go,” she said. “So traveling to festivals, obviously, is a very important part of that puzzle. But also being able to go to a press screening on a Tuesday afternoon in L.A. is extremely helpful.”

Mackay brought one title to the 2015 festival, “City of Gold,” a documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. It opens the festival Friday, following an opening reception that serves as Mackay’s formal introduction to the Aspen community. “City of Gold” director Laura Gabbert will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.

“It’s specific to L.A., but it doesn’t feel that way while you’re watching it,” Mackay said. “It’s about the food-life connection. I don’t know anyone who has seen that movie and doesn’t walk out in pure joy.”

Mackay grew up in New York City and suburban Washington, D.C. In New York, her mother lived around the corner from the vaunted indie theater Film Forum, where Mackay cultivated her cinematic tastes.

“They never saddled me with age-appropriate stuff,” she said. “It was things they thought I would find interesting, even if they weren’t geared toward children.”

Over the past month, she’s talked with locals to get a feel for Aspen. Ideally, she said, she wants Aspen Film audiences to draw from diverse segments of the mountain-town populace: ski bums and service-industry folk, young and old, families and the Latin American population.

She said she hopes to maintain the quality of the nonprofit’s three popular and acclaimed festivals — Filmfest in the fall, Academy Screenings in the winter and Shortsfest in the spring — with an eye on expanding year-round programming. That might include special screenings of genre movies, retrospectives or showing smaller art-house films that don’t currently make their way to local theaters.

“I’d love to be able to give Aspen year-round options for movies that you’re not currently getting,” she said.

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