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A hybrid Filmfest in a chaotic year for cinema

"Nomadland"
Courtesy of SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

IF YOU GO …

What: Aspen Filmfest

Where: eventive.org, Isis Theatre, Snowmass Town Park

When: Thursday, Oct. 15 to Wednesday, Oct. 21

How much: $25/individual virtual ticket ($20/members); $40/in-person screenings ($32/members); $100/5-film virtual pass ($80/members); $250/full virtual pass ($200/members)

Tickets: aspenfilm.org

It’s been a cataclysmic year for the film industry and a chaotic one for film festivals, as making and releasing movies has been disrupted and cinema’s business models have perhaps been permanently altered by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Since the Sundance Film Festival wrapped in January, no film festival has gone exactly as planned. But some found ways to go online, like Aspen Film’s Aspen Shortsfest back in the early days of the pandemic, and some are now rolling out hybrid festivals with virtual screenings complemented by some in-person events, such as Aspen Filmfest, which opens Thursday.

Aspen Film executive director Susan Wrubel said that finding a way to continue producing festivals and spotlighting independent film over the past seven months — despite the disruptions — has helped clarify Aspen Film’s mission to entertain and enlighten through cinema.

“A big part of what we do is provide quality entertainment and content to people,” she said. “It’s been a tough time and people look to viewing films and series as a relief and an escape.”

With a 12-film virtual lineup, four in-person screenings at the Isis Theatre and a special drive-in event, Filmfest’s lineup has the most highly touted films of 2020. Included on the list are “Nomadland,” which won the Golden Lion at Venice and the audience award at Toronto International Film Festival, the Kate Winselt-Saoirse Ronan period romance “Ammonite,” Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Minari,” Regina King’s “…One Night in Miami” and the Spike Lee-directed concert film “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”

Oscar-winning Colorado filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s “The Dissident” about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi will get its first festival screening since Sundance at Filmfest.

But along with entertaining and presenting Oscar hopefuls, Wrubel said the social justice movements of 2020 also have underscored the film society’s aim to edify audiences.

“This is also an opportunity to spotlight issues in the world today and create conversations and dialogue about the atrocities going on around the world, the beautiful things going on in the world and to get a conversation going,” Wrubel said.

Filmfest’s 2020 documentaries include “I Am Greta” about climate activist Greta Thunberg and the expose about government surveillance “MLK/FBI” and “The Dissident.”

The normal rhythms of fall film season ­— typically running from Telluride’s and Toronto’s festivals in late summer to the Oscars in late winter — have been thrown into chaos as movie theaters and the industry face an existential threat from the pandemic. But there are silver linings if you look closely.

Virtual festivals are creating new national audiences for smaller films and elevating cinematic voices that might have been drowned out by Oscar season noise in a normal year. Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” for instance, a small film about a woman (Frances McDormand) taking to the road after losing her job, has garnered sustained press and social media attention since it won the audience award at Toronto. It is firmly at the center of the pop culture conversation about movies.

“I do think there is an opportunity for filmmakers to find their way to broader audiences right now,” Wrubel said.

She pointed to Shortfest as a case in point. It drew a national online audience for what is normally a prestigious and Oscar-qualifying but exceedingly small festival at the Wheeler Opera House.

“What we learned this year is that we have a national audience who is paying attention to what we are doing and really have an appetite for cinema,” Wrubel said.

Festivals also are building buzz for independent titles before they head out into a COVID-limited theatrical release or onto streaming platforms.

The Hollywood spoof “The Comeback Trail,” starring Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones, is playing Filmfest virtually and at select festivals this fall. Writer-director George Gallo said the film has all the marking of a mainstream theatrical hit. But 2020 has complicated its fortunes.

“It seems to be a crowd-pleaser,” Gallo said this week. “The only problem is that you can’t get a crowd into a movie theater. So it’s very frustrating.”

It is a strange and frustrating year for filmmakers and film lovers. But Wrubel is proud of the slate of films and the mix of virtual and in-person events Filmfest has put together.

“This lineup is as strong as any that we have had,” she said.

atravers@aspentimes.com


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