State lands a leading role in filmmaking
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 1:00 AM
By Lisa Kennedy Denver Post Film Critic Post / Glenn Asakawa Northglenn’s Rick Ramage is sharing the spotlight with other local talent at the Denver International Film Festival. From a psychological thriller set in the Rockies to a musical fable to a crackling labor comedy, this year's Denver International Film Festival is providing fresh evidence that Colorado is becoming a rich place for film. A perfect storm of factors is rearranging the landscape of the movie business here. Unlike spurts of activity in previous years that barely kept local filmmakers working, this renewed vigor is not dependent on visiting productions and TV commercials for its vibrancy. While Denver is far from becoming Hollywood with altitude, filmmakers and film buffs are cheering the progress the medium has made in the state. "We got more submissions from Colorado filmmakers than in any time since I've been here," said Denver Film Society program director Brit Withey, now in his ninth year with the festival, which features 19 homegrown films. "Volume aside, the work is getting better." Among the key elements bolstering the film scene: New micro-cinema venues - clubs and theaters - are screening local works. The Colorado Film School at Lowry is a joint venture of the Community College of Aurora and the University of Colorado at Denver. A number of student and faculty members at the production-focused institution have movies in this year's festival, which kicked off Oct. 14. Young filmmakers are sticking around after film school instead of heading to Los Angeles or New York City. Veteran players are making Colorado their base of operations. Last weekend, writer-director Rick Ramage premiered "Ichabod!" at the festival, now in its 27th year. And Denver-based distributor New Deal Pictures screened its first feature, Bob Young's sharp- tongued film "Human Error." "Our idea is to try as much as we can to help create a film community, an artistic community of sufficient size that it becomes self-sufficient, that it can generate its own product," said New Deal chairman Joel Ehrlich. "The people coming back to Colorado left because they couldn't do it here. Our idea is to try to get enough business and to generate it so that people don't have to get day jobs. And it's happening." Colorado's film industry isn't just growing; it is developing a sense of itself as a community. "For the first time, going to Los Angeles is not what every one thinks of," said Withey. "There are places here where they can get their equipment, crews. ... There's acting networks where they can get people to be in their films." Why Colorado? Why now? "First off, the advantage of being in Colorado is you can start something," said Alexandre O. Philippe, director "Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water," a documentary showing at the festival. The New York University Film School graduate and the Denver Film Society launched the Screenwriting Center earlier this year. "It would have been very difficult for me to have started a screenwriting center in New York," Philippe said. "There's talent here." While the state does not offer tax incentives, filmmakers note other attractive perks such as the large number of sunny days per year, locations ranging from gritty urban to pristine alpine, and a deep pool of production experts. For Doug Olson, a producer of "Ichabod!", there is an even more fundamental reason why veterans return to Colorado and young filmmakers don't want to leave: "We're here (because) ... this is our home and we've discovered that the resources are here for us to make film at the level that we want to make." Frederic Lahey, director of the Colorado Film School, agrees there has been a change. "When I first got here, we were suffering a bit from small town-itis, which was people competing with each other and thinking ... their principal duty was to keep other people from doing stuff. Now there is much more of a spirit of collaboration and cooperation." He, too, sees "people relocating from Los Angeles and New York and bringing heavy bags onto the playing field (and) the charged-up youth element. ... Another part of the mix is the much greater support coming from the mayor." The Colorado Film School has about 400 students, and the film program at CU-Denver "has shown the highest growth rate of any program in the College of Arts and Media," said interim dean Frank Jermance. There is no central agency tracking all films, TV shows and commercials made in the state, but numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics bolster the notion that the industry is growing here. According to the bureau, Colorado is No.1 in projected job growth among states in directors, producers, actors and composers, and musicians; No.2 in designers (in the visual and audio domains); and No.4 in artists, and TV movie, video and audio production. The mix is not perfect yet, said Ehrlich, whose New Deal Pictures hopes to distribute "Human Error" by early next year. "There are some key pieces that are missing still," he said. "One of them is banking. You can't create an industry without bankers." Ramage, a Northglenn resident, is a prime example of the industry's health locally. He shot "Ichabod!" last spring on a soundstage at the Denver Studio Complex, using an almost exclusively Colorado cast and crew. The 14,000-square-foot facility, 241 S. Cherokee St., is where Perry Mason's TV courtroom once was. The writer-director and his business partner, Tim Wiens, intend "Ichabod!" to be the first in a series of literary classics shot for kids. "I've put the trailer out with my agents in L.A.," said Ramage. "We've gotten huge response. And I've had two majors contact me, as well as a new group out of Boston." In addition to homegrown "Human Error" and "Ichabod!" there are the homecoming works of three first-time feature directors. Boulder High alumnus and CU graduate Mario de la Vega is screening his quirky border western, "Robbing Peter." Manual High School grads Jodi Binstock ('77) and Kim Roberts ('88) return to Denver with two very different and entertaining debuts. Binstock's film, "Call Waiting," which played to packed theaters over the weekend, stars Caroline Aaron in the dual role of a woman shut-in and the actress playing her. Roberts, who made the film with husband Eli Despres, said Colorado was the ideal place to shoot "Wilderness Survival for Girls," a creepy tale about three young women stranded in a mountain cabin. The film shows tonight at the festival. "People thought we were crazy to come back to shoot in Colorado," said Roberts, who grew up in Park Hill. "But ... for me the feel of mountains at 11,000 feet is so different than mountains anywhere else." At a festival reception Monday night for local talent, filmmaking partners Wade Gardner and Josh Weinberg seemed to embody the changes afoot in Colorado. The pair, who met at the Colorado Film School, run an impressive mini-festival of student films in the spring and their own short showed at the festival. "What's been eye-opening for me during the festival," said Gardner, "is that local filmmakers are starting to meet, and they're saying, 'Wow, there is a real movement of good work being produced right now."' Film critic Lisa Kennedy can be reached at 303-820-1567 or firstname.lastname@example.org .