Ellen Hunt, 79, leaves cinematic legacy in Aspen
Aspen Film founder championed independent creators and local audiences
Ellen Hunt, the co-founder and longtime director of Aspen Film whose passion made the nonprofit a beloved staple of local culture and made its festivals a launching pad for emerging international filmmakers, died Jan. 25 at her home here. She was 79.
The cause was cancer, according to her son, Alex Kohner.
Hunt was among a trio of intrepid community-minded women who launched Aspen Filmfest in September 1979. She shepherded the organization as it expanded to become Aspen Film and to host the Oscar-qualifying springtime Aspen Shortsfest and the awards season showcase Academy Screenings in 1992.
Hunt coined the organization’s slogan, “Independent By Nature,” which friends noted described her as well as the film society to which she devoted herself for four decades.
“She was a highly respected member and pillar within the Aspen community and we were incredibly fortunate to have Ellen be such an amazing champion for Aspen Film,” the nonprofit’s board president, Ryan Brooks, wrote this week. “Ellen’s impact has been and will continue to be felt for a very long time.“
HOW ABOUT A FILM FESTIVAL?
Hunt came to Aspen from Los Angeles in 1975 as a single mother of two young children. The move followed her divorce from Pancho Kohner, the filmmaker and United Artists executive with whom she spent the 1960s living in France and Spain, steeped in the groundbreaking European film culture of the decade.
With a fresh start in Aspen, Hunt became involved in the local arts scene — a leader in the scruffy and semi-organized movement of young artists and patrons who brought new blood and excitement into the mountain town’s cultural life with the founding of organizations like the Aspen Writers’ Conference, the Aspen Art Museum and Aspen Filmfest in the late 1970s. This cultural flowering, led by a new generation of Aspenites, followed in the footsteps and expanded on the vision of old guard organizations such as the Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Institute.
“She looked around Aspen and said, ‘Oh, there’s not a lot happening in terms of film, we’ll start a film festival,’” recalled the journalist Loren Jenkins, a close friend since the mid-1970s.
The original spark came at a meeting of the Aspen Arts Council in 1979, the story goes, when Hunt clandestinely passed a note around the room that read, “How about having a film festival?”
* A memorial will be held when public health restrictions allow.
* Donations may be directed to a dedicated Ellen Hunt fund at Aspen Film, the purpose of which is to educate, support and recognize young and upcoming filmmakers. aspenfilm.org
Pulling it off, however, was a feat in that era when few festivals existed outside of major cities, and few small-town volunteer-based organizations had the savvy, industry connections and gall that Hunt possessed to call filmmakers and distributors to create a world-class program.
The first rendition of FIlmfest, in September 1979, ran for four days in Paepcke Auditorium on a $6,000 budget. In the early years, the festival included a competition for independent filmmakers from 10 Western U.S. states and an open call for submissions.
“We want to encourage these talented people who need experience and background,” she told The Aspen Times on the eve of the inaugural festival. “Filmmaking is a difficult industry to break into because it is so expensive to produce films.”
From the beginning, the festival included short film programs, kids’ filmmaking workshops and a diverse mix of features and documentaries as well as the long-standing tradition of a surprise Saturday night movie.
“We had a great time — watching dreadful movies, choosing the better ones, showing them to our enthusiastic audiences,” said Gail Holstein, who co-founded FIlmfest with Hunt and Carol Rudolph. “We never expected to have such a wonderful reception. We specifically chose September, because offseason in the ‘70s in Aspen provided very little in the way of entertainment; everyone went to the movies. “
The all-volunteer staff worked year-round screening movies and convening to make festival selections. Hunt in those early days “cajoled, bribed and blackmailed a group of cinema junkies to sift through reels of film and shelves of video, and then debate the merits of each” in the words of a 1999 fundraising letter.
Hunt never drew a salary and did help bankroll Filmfest operations herself through the early years. She stepped down from her day-to-day duties as director in 1995, though she remained involved and advised her successors up through Filmfest 2020.
INDEPENDENT BY NATURE
From the start, Hunt wanted Filmfest to be a platform for independent filmmakers, championing indies a full decade before the heydays of Sundance and Miramax and Independent Spirit Awards.
“She really had a vision for the independent film business before the business existed,” said current Aspen Film executive and artistic director Susan Wrubel, who called Hunt a mentor and friend.
It was prescient, as the age of the blockbuster in the 1980s forced more artistically inclined filmmakers onto the fringes and into the film festival scene. Filmfest encouraged young and emerging talents, becoming one of the first showcases for the Coen brothers to debut “Blood Simple” and Whit Stillman’s debut “Metropolitan,” and provided early-career boosts for Billy Bob Thornton, Tim Burton and Michael Moore.
“As Hollywood studios turn more and more to mass market films and teenage audiences, these filmmakers outside the system are moving into a void — waiting to be filled with films that have serious interest for intelligent audiences,” Hunt told the Aspen Times in September 1985. “There was no audience a few years ago but independent films are really hot now.”
Uninterested in showbiz glam and red carpets, Hunt aimed the festival at Aspen locals and committed to keep it a community-based event, even as it grew in stature over the ’80s and the ski town’s culture grew flashier and more acquisitive.
The welcoming spirit that imbued Filmfest, friends and family said, came from Hunt’s heart. Her West End home, going back to the mid ’70s, took on a salon-like spirit with a revolving door of local characters dropping by before and after concerts at the Music Tent in the summers or gathering for notoriously great parties with local film lovers, artists and neighborhood friends, including screenwriter Lorenzo Semple and the novelist James Salter. She also would frequently convene friends to watch movies in her basement screening room and often adopted animals in need (at one point keeping nine cats in the family home).
When she married Billy Hunt in 1994, the couple oversaw an award-winning restoration of a West End Victorian together, with gatherings in mind.
“Filmfest, because of its looseness, its informality, doesn’t exclude anyone,” Hunt said in 1999. “It includes everyone.”
In those early renditions, FIlmfest’s all-volunteer leaders enlisted their children and friends to paint canvas banners to fly across Main Street and to hand out flyers promoting films, while husbands grilled food outside of the Isis and the Wheeler theater for patrons.
“Aspen’s Filmfest has resolutely marched to the whir of a different projectionist,” Semple, the “Batman” TV series creator, wrote in a 1999 fundraising letter, “and one may say, without fear of contradictions, that under the idiosyncratic command of Ellen Kohner (Hunt), Filmfest has tramped a route that is unique.”
The addition of Aspen Shortsfest in 1992 deepened the organization’s impact, providing an innovative all-shorts platform that would become Oscar-qualifying and would become a launchpad for prominent filmmakers of the current moment like Damien Chazelle, Sarah Polley, Jason Reitman and Jean-Marc Vallee.
Since 1999, Shortsfest has included The Ellen among its annual awards, giving a trophy and a cash prize for the most original film at the festival as selected by a jury of Hunt’s friends.
Bob Rafelson, the New Hollywood filmmaker and longtime Aspenite, noted that he never attended the Academy Awards when he was nominated. But he twice accepted honors from Aspen Film, because of his deep respect for Hunt and because of their shared antipathy for Hollywood glitz.
The most recent was at Filmfest 2019, when Rafelson sat for a rare public interview and accepted a lifetime achievement award at Hunt’s request. He began the evening at the Wheeler Opera House by honoring Hunt, who had recently been diagnosed with stage-four cancer and was wheelchair-bound from the effects of the treatments, telling the crowd “none of us would be here tonight were it not for Ellen Hunt.”
The audience reacted with an extended ovation.
“That’s because Ellen meant a lot to this town,” Rafelson recalled this week. “She was modest, she didn’t want the praise, but she did some extraordinary things.”
Hunt joined Rafelson and a crowd of the old-time Aspen friends for a dinner afterward and for what they assumed would be her final Filmfest. Her health rebounded after that, however, in a turn that her son called “miraculous,” allowing her to take a final trip abroad with Billy and to attend one of Aspen Film’s summer 2020 drive-in screenings.
A LOCAL LEGACY
While Aspen Film will be Hunt’s local legacy, she was a stalwart supporter of many other local causes and nonprofits, including Lift-Up and Anderson Ranch Arts Center, where she was a regular in ceramics workshops.
In 1988, she purchased a 406-acre parcel of remote land near Mount Sopris and restored an old miner’s cabin there as a hobby in the years that followed. As her health declined, Hunt and the family sold it to the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program, ensuring it will go undeveloped in what has been described as a linchpin of conserving the greater Thompson Divide area.
Lynda Palevsky, an Aspen Film board member in the 1980s and ’90s and a close friend, recalled Hunt’s knack for whimsical adventure. For example, Palevsky recalled bringing up to Hunt an article she’d read about a California chef making a healthy version of hot dogs, which led to a research trip to San Francisco, and then an informal partnership to bring healthy hot dog carts to Aspen for events like the Filmfest and the Aspen Ideas Festival, where the company — Let’s Be Frank — remains a fixture of the Aspen Institute campus every June and July.
“She was beloved and she was quirky,” said Palevsky. “And she was an original — a total original.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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