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Breckenridge Festival of Film celebrates 30th anniversary

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Actor and producer Guy Perry lives in Los Angeles, but he chose to screen his dramatic short, “The Confession,” at Breckenridge Festival of Film because of its longevity; this year, the festival celebrates its 30th anniversary.”I read it had a long reputation, and there are not that many festivals that have that type of maturity,” Perry said. “You expect them to be around for a while.”Perry entered his film as a short narrative, but reviewers placed it in the GLBT category, which Breckenridge began showcasing about seven years ago. Frank Accosta, an advisor, noticed a trend in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual topics in independent films, so he introduced the category.”It turned out to be very successful,” said Karin Bearnarth, president of the festival’s board of directors. “It gave these films with this subject matter a voice.”And giving filmmakers a voice is one of Breckenridge Film Festival’s aims- and one of the elements responsible for its popularity since it began in 1981.For Perry, it’s a venue to “see how it plays with an audience,” he said. For filmmaker Stuart St. Paul, it’s about bringing his 90-minute drama, “Freight,” depicting human trafficking in the United Kingdom, to an American audience. St. Paul hails from England, where approximately 4,000 women are forced to illegally work as prostitutes.”It’s important for everybody who made that film to get it out,” St. Paul said. “(The festival) is a place where we can occasionally get recognition and a laurel, maybe, to put on our box.”The acknowledgment helps compensate for what almost all independent films lack: big-name stars.For St. Paul, Breckenridge seemed like a perfect fit.”Breckenridge is very much like an action town, and it’s an independent town, so my film fits in because it’s an action film, (independently produced),” he said.

Meg Lass and Mary Rianoshek founded the Breckenridge Festival of Film at the urging of town council members, who wanted to create a fall activity to drum up business during the shoulder season. Rianoshek knew renowned film critic Jeffrey Lyons, who has been a staple at the fests (and now his son, Ben Lyons, joins him). Lyons was instrumental in developing necessary contacts, Lass said. Staff at the Denver Film Festival also helped get the ball rolling, and John Hawn put up seed money.The fest started as an event for film lovers; Lass and Rianoshek didn’t want to compete with Telluride in terms of setting up deals with filmmakers; instead, they focused on showing premieres and attracting fairly well-known names.For the first 10 years, the two women remained true to their mission. One of Lass’ most fun (well, now she can laugh) memories is borrowing a big ol’ car to pick up Donald Sutherland. What she didn’t know was the car had a hole in the muffler and the back seat, which filled with noxious fumes, “so we almost killed him,” Lass said.

In the last 20 years, the focus of the festival has slowly shifted.”It’s become more of a mission for us to enrich mostly the youth, but also the filmmakers in our community,” Bearnarth said. “It became important to us to have the filmmakers learn from the other filmmakers and network and really feel like they’ve gotten something out of the festival.”Up until three years ago, when the festival took place in September, organizers competed with other hefty festivals, including Toronto, to obtain premieres and celebrities. Unfortunately, Toronto usually ruled.”Now, we’ve changed our emphasis to be more of an asset to the community and to the filmmakers,” Bearnarth said. “We don’t actively seek celebrities (who require fees and are usually on a circuit promoting their latest movies). It’s difficult to get them to the small festivals, but that’s fine with us because the filmmakers are the stars (in Breckenridge).”Three years ago, Town of Breckenridge staff asked to switch from scheduling the festival in September to June, because, ironically enough, September started to fill with popular events, such as Oktoberfest. They believed it would be better for the community if the festival acted as a kick-off for the summer season. What they may not have realized is: June is actually a much better month to snag premieres and great filmmakers because there’s less competition. “Now that it’s in June, we’ve gotten some amazing films,” said executive director Dawna Foxx. For example, the premiere of “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.”And, the fest still draws big names like this year’s special guest, D.B. Sweeney, whose films include “Gardens of Stone,” “Memphis Belle,” “Fire in the Sky,” “The Cutting Edge,” “No Man’s Land,” and “Eight Men Out.” He debuts as a screenwriter, director and producer of “Two Tickets to Paradise,” which premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Speakeasy Theatre.Bringing Sweeney to Breck fit in with the festival’s mission of inspiring young people and filmmakers, because Sweeney began as a character actor on television and not only broke into roles in movies, but also is directing, producing and starring in films, Bearnarth said.

Like any nonprofit, the Breckenridge Festival of Film has struggled with money -namely, having enough. But unlike many film fests, which have sold out to corporations and become “turn-key,” as media liaison Jen Assor said, Breckenridge has remained local and hasn’t become “very exclusive and very expensive.” Instead, it has emphasized a sense of closeness with filmmakers, who are easily approached.”At a lot of festivals, you can’t do that,” Assor said.Volunteers have been essential to the festival’s success; it benefits annually from more than 200 volunteers, who do everything from reviewing films and selling tickets to running fundraisers.”The community aspect is the true, independent nature of the festival,” she said.Another challenge involved switching from September to June. Organizers didn’t want to miss a beat, so they hosted two festivals in one year, which drained some finances. Then, the first year they had the June-only festival, ticket sales decreased.However, since then, sales have increased, especially this year, in which there have been more early buyers, more passes sold and more awareness, because of the festival’s anniversary, Foxx said. The festival draws anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people annually.


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