Officials from the nonprofit Aspen Film have yet to finalize a venue for the 35th annual Aspen Filmfest this fall, as they attempt to find a replacement for its traditional home in the Wheeler Opera House.
The historic opera house is undergoing a renovation this fall that will also update its film projection equipment for digital films. It will be closed from Sept. 3 through Dec. 21.
Filmfest is the largest event that will be affected by the Wheeler closure. It’s scheduled to run Sept. 25 to 29. And there is no easy replacement in the Aspen area for the 500-seat venue, which includes a lobby for receptions, a stage for filmmaker presentations, and backstage green rooms.
Aspen Film executive director Kip Hubbard said he has been in negotiations with staff from the Paepcke Auditorium and the Isis Theater, and that the film festival may end up running at both venues during portions of its five days of screenings. They are the only two venues in Aspen that are equipped for digital projection.
“We’ve been working on it for months and figuring out how it’s going to look,” said Hubbard. “It’s been really challenging to figure out.”
Last year, the highest-attended screening at Filmfest was the eventual Best Picture winner “Argo,” which drew 450 people. To accommodate that many people at the Isis, Aspen Film would have to simultaneously screen the film in three separate theaters. To include their traditional introductions and filmmaker question-and-answer sessions, Filmfest would have to Skype or simulcast live from one location to the others. To simulate the festive atmosphere of the Wheeler lobby, they could have a street festival-esque set up outside of the theater. Hubbard and his team are considering such creative solutions for their one-year hiatus from the Wheeler, but haven’t yet made any final calls.
Paepcke, which seats 410, is already booked by another organization for some of the Filmfest dates.
“There are a lot of questions that are still up in the air,” Hubbard said. “I feel confident that we’ll have five days of films, and have Filmfest as planned, with our usual slate of features, documentaries and foreign films.”
Hubbard is hopeful that the festival’s decades-long tradition of presenting quality cinema will outweigh any logistical or superficial shortcomings during the year out of the Wheeler.
“We want our patrons and our members to understand that this is an unusual year and we’re doing our best to meet these challenges,” he said.
The Wheeler’s other main event for the fall, Aspen Skiing Co.’s The Meeting, is also on the hunt for a different venue. The weekend-long snow sports film showcase and industry gathering is scheduled during the same time as Filmfest: Sept. 26-28.
“We do not have the details yet,” SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle said via e-mail of their venue for this year, “but we are very excited about the possibilities.”
The Wheeler renovation was motivated largely by the “go digital or go dark” dilemma of movie theaters worldwide. Studios and film distributors are poised to stop delivering traditional prints of movies by the end of this year. So theaters have been forced to convert to digital projectors, or drastically limit the number of new films they can screen. Film festivals, in turn, need theaters with digital capabilities to show the newest movies.
The Wheeler planned a digital conversion as part of its $2.9 million renovation, in part, so it could continue to host Aspen Film’s annual festivals. Aspen Film is the theater’s second largest user, after the Aspen Music Festival and School.
“We feel badly that in order to help them we’re actually hurting them,” said Wheeler executive director Gram Slaton. “We’re just caught in this crack of the industry right now.”
Slaton has assisted Hubbard in his venue hunt, and also offered the Wheeler’s army of volunteers to staff this year’s festival, as usual.
Filmfest’s traditional downvalley partner, Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre, earlier this summer held a fundraising drive to convert its single theater for digital. The theater successfully raised $70,000 for the conversion, but hasn’t yet made the switch. Slaton was hopeful the independent theater would be able to convert before Filmfest, to continue its annual screenings in Carbondale.
“I’d hate to see Filmfest just on this side of the roundabout,” he said.
Despite the logistical curveball it’s thrown his organization, Hubbard said he was supportive of the Wheeler’s renovation and update to digital.
“It’s never a good time to do [the renovation], but it has to get done, from a film standpoint, and we’re really supportive of that going forward,” he said.
Aspen Film’s artistic team is currently screening films and negotiating with distributors to book this year’s lineup. Hubbard said they expect to announce the lineup in early September, and will begin selling tickets shortly thereafter.