Wheeler Opera House drops partnership with Mountainfilm, launches Aspen Mountain Film Festival

Wheeler Opera House executive director Gena Buhler, left, with "THe Happy Film" co-director Ben Nabors at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies during a 2016 Mountainfilmin Aspen film festival event.
Aspen Times file

The Wheeler Opera House has ended its 10-year partnership with Telluride Mountainfilm on its summertime documentary film festival, and the historic theater is relaunching the August event as the Aspen Mountain Film Festival.

It was formerly known as “MountainSummit: Mountainfilm in Aspen” from 2009 to 2015 and as simply “Mountainfilm in Aspen” from 2016 to 2018.

The Wheeler announced the re-branded festival Friday, billing it as “a five-day celebration of diverse mountain cultures, highlighting Aspen’s unique philosophy of body, mind and spirit through documentary film, music, art, food and stage with shared experiences of travel, adventure, environment, sustainability, community and extraordinary storytelling.”

Over the past decade, the festival has showcased adventure movies and documentaries from Telluride Mountainfilm, which runs its flagship festival in May and also operates a world film tour.

Mountainfilm’s contract with the Wheeler expired Jan. 1, Wheeler executive director Gena Buhler said Friday. The Wheeler opted not to renew it and to take full ownership of the festival instead.

In recent years, the Wheeler has taken an increasingly creative role in the festival — adding events and off-screen programming, while Mountainfilm operated as its film broker. The film bills were largely filled with titles that had premiered at Telluride Mountainfilm and all of the programming was subject to Mountainfilm’s approval. This led to what Buhler called “brand conflicts,” where Mountainfilm prioritized its Telluride-based programming over Aspen’s.

The Wheeler is operated with real estate transfer tax funding from the city of Aspen, so Buhler decided it was appropriate to align the festival more closely with local interests.

“The priorities were not 100 percent on Aspen,” she said. “And when we’re talking about staff time and city funds, we want to keep it fiscally responsible.”

The budget for the inaugural Aspen Mountain Film Festival is $53,000. Buhler said dropping the Telluride partnership has not added costs.

Since 2015, the Wheeler has produced an increasingly robust and diverse lineup of events at the festival — adding interactive experiences with filmmakers and film subjects including outdoor activities, workshops and cooking classes.

“What has guided us in the last four years has been using film as an inspiration,” Buhler said.

Over that stretch, the festival has grown into a cornerstone cultural event in Aspen’s summer season, planting a flag in the relatively quiet stretch of late August between the end of the Aspen Music Festival season and Labor Day weekend. Since 2015, the festival has expanded its lineup from eight programs to 13, while ticket sales have risen 45 percent over that period, according to Buhler.

The Wheeler also has brought in other local organizations as partners, begun hosting events in venues throughout town and worked to have special guests and filmmakers stay for the duration of the festival to fuel its interactive elements. Last year, the festival added an awards program on its final day.

Buhler said Friday that taking full ownership of the festival will allow the Wheeler to more specifically tailor the programs to Aspenites.

Running the festival in-house, she said, will give the Wheeler more control of the films in the lineup and allow for more local filmmakers to take part. For the first time this year, the Wheeler will accept direct submissions from filmmakers. Buhler hopes this process will allow the Wheeler to spotlight local voices.

“This allows us to say, ‘Yes, we think that this should screen at the Wheeler for our priorities,’” said Buhler.

The event was the brainchild of former Wheeler director Gram Slaton, who launched it in 2009 after attending Telluride Mountainfilm the previous year and witnessing how it energized the Telluride community (“It just seemed like what Aspen was back in 1990, which is what everyone celebrates as its final great hurrah,” Slaton told the Times in 2009).

The Wheeler has outgrown the need for the partnership, Buhler said.

“When Gram initially said, ‘Let’s start a film festival in a really slow time in August,’ with no film programming experience, the relationship with Telluride Mountainfilm was really smart,” Buhler said. “But their strategic planning went one way and ours went another.”

Representatives of Telluride Mountainfilm could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

The Aspen Mountain Film Festival will run Aug. 21 to 25. The full festival lineup will be announced in July.