Roll ‘em! A reel-to-reel rundown of Steamboat’s film festivals

Julia Ben-Asher
For Steamboat Living
Nick McNutt in Petersburg, Alaska, filming with Teton Gravity Research.
Courtesy photo

Steamboat Springs might not be Telluride, Sundance or Banff when it comes to film festivals. But it still showcases its fair share of celluloid, with a smattering of film festivals year-round.

“Some festivals are collections of films with a common theme, and others are judge-based and give first-time filmmakers an opportunity to get their works evaluated,” said Michael Staley, chair of the Steamboat Springs Film Commission. “I love that Steamboat does both.”

Behold a sneak peek at some local film fest favorites:

Steamboat Mountain Film Festival

The Steamboat Springs Outdoor Art and Film Festival was born in 2003, by Michael Martin, director of the Ski and Snowboard Business Program at Colorado Mountain College. Martin had gotten into making amateur ski films with a Sony Handycam and CD player when he moved to Steamboat to attend CMC in 1995.

The inaugural event hosted the premier of “Wedge,” which told the story of Martin’s journey to hike up and ski down Wedge Mountain, the highest peak in British Columbia’s Garibaldi Provincial Park. Alongside “Wedge” were “A Cure for Boredom,” a film by five Steamboat Springs High School students; “City Lights,” by Third Eye Productions; and “Late Entry,” by Dan Gilchrist.

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This article is from the summer issue of Steamboat Living magazine.

“As far as I know, that was kind of the first film festival in Steamboat,” Martin said.

The next year, the event was renamed the Steamboat Mountain Film Festival and redesigned to display local filmmakers’ works in other action sports. Entries were to be no longer than 35 minutes, and footage needed to be filmed in the Yampa Valley. Submitted films were judged by Mountain Sports Media and staff from Warren Miller Entertainment. Winners were awarded $1,000 and won the right to edit the Steamboat segment for a Warren Miller film.

“In the beginning, I paid for the festival in credit cards, and thankfully, people responded to it,” Martin said. “To be here 15 years later is an honor.”

A decade and a half, and the advent of such platforms as YouTube and Vimeo, have ushered in stark changes in the adventure sports film industry.

“In the early 2000s, people would shoot clips on film, develop and edit it over the fall, and that would be the first time people would see it,” Martin said. “Now, that footage can be up that same day. To make a unique film today, you have to package it in a way that breaks the mold of the genre. Otherwise it’s just more internet noise. Today, you’d better bring something really unique, that really appeals to your audience.”

The time spent working with and living among his Steamboat audience has helped Martin as a festival organizer in tune with his market. “That’s a work of art, too, that I’ve honed over the years,” he said. “It’s always a moving target. The more hands-on you are, the more personal the festival is, and the better product you deliver.”

The festival continues to present major adventure features by such established companies as Teton Gravity Research and Matchstick Productions.

“Martin gets the top-of-the-line ski films,” said Scott Parker, executive director of the Chief Theater, which hosts the festival. “They’re always a great draw.”

The festival is also a contest for aspiring adventure filmmakers. Filmmakers can enter their films as “pro” (films with a budget of $10,000 or more) or “independent” (less than $10,000). The Reel Open category is judged by festival judges, while the Reel People category is judged by audience online voting.

“It’s kind of a feeder festival for these films. They get noticed by a bigger market and shown somewhere else,” Martin saud. “And that’s where and how I got my start.”

Winter Film Series

Including films produced by Rocky Mountain PBS to donated home footage, the Winter Film Series is presented by the Tread of Pioneers Museum, once per month all winter long, at the Chief Theater. The films are always centered around local history and ski history, spanning decades.

“They show stuff from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, including things like skijoring during Winter Carnival,” said the Chief’s Parker. “I always walk out grinning from ear to ear.”

Films this year included December’s “History Channel’s Modern Marvels: Snow,” featuring scientist Kenneth Libbrecht of Steamboat’s Storm Peak Laboratory; January’s “Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians,” documenting life among native people; February’s “I Never Look Back: The Buddy Werner Story,” about the local Olympian’s life and death; and “Stormy: The Story of a Mountain and a Man,” “Skiing Steamboat Style” and “Steamboat: The Place to Ski.”

“People love being able to reminisce and gain that historical perspective,” said museum Executive Director Candice Bannister, adding the historic Chief Theater is the perfect place to host the event.

Bannister expects next winter’s highlight to be a never-before-seen compilation of Werner family home movies.

“We received the raw film reels from the family, and are working to digitize it,” she said. “Then we’ll review it and create a ‘best of’ compilation for the public. It should be an incredible look at the lives of the Werner family and how important they were to the community.”

The museum also has a research center and archive full of digitized film footage, transferred from 8- and 16-millimeter reels, that visitors and locals are welcome to view.

Foreign Film Series

The Foreign Film Series, hosted by Bud Werner Memorial Library at the Chief Theater, began in 2009 and has evolved into a monthly, long-standing event.

“A highlight is that these films are distinctly not American,” said organizer Jennie Lay. “Whether the film is from France, Russia, the Czech Republic or Peru, each one takes beautiful and different threads on storytelling and artistry than what we’re used to in the U.S. This is a big part of the allure of the series — staying connected to the world in meaningful cultural ways that go beyond breaking news.”

The series has shown films directed by France’s Clément Cogitore, Colombia’s Samir Oliveros, Japan’s Koji Fukada, Estonia’s Elmo Nüganen, Poland’s Andrzej Wajda and more.

“Generally, most of the library’s focus is upon documentaries,” Lay said. “It’s a delight to help fill the other missing gap in Steamboat’s film genre.”

The series has also included genres spanning black comedy and psychological thriller to crime drama and romance.

“They’re all super high-quality films, and people know that,” said the Chief’s Scott Parker.

While the library also hosts several traveling film festivals throughout the year — including Telluride MountainFilm on Tour at the start of ski season; Reel Rock, a collection of climbing films, in mid-winter; and Lunafest, featuring films made by, for and about women — its foreign series is a two-thumbs-up favorite.

“The films get a steady flow of people whose interests are piqued because a film is from a particular country, or won a particular award,” Lay said. “And another thing: Wine tends to go well with foreign films, something we don’t do at the library.”

Steamboat Springs Student Film Festival

High school students’ cinematic touch is unveiled every year in the Steamboat Springs Student Film Festival. Started in 2012 by Steve Moos, with screenings and events held in the high school auditorium, the event has grown into its new home at the Chief. Led by high school video production instructor Randy Homan, with assistance from Michael Edward Staley and Sharon Pinney, of the Steamboat Springs Film Commission, the sixth annual festival was held in May.

More than 100 films are entered into the contest each year by students across the country, with several international submissions, as well. Students whose films make the cut get to participate in a full day of events, including workshops, screenings and an awards program.

“It’s neat to see how diverse the submissions are,” Staley said. “People think there will be a lot of comedies, but there are also a lot of experimentals, action sports and documentaries.”

The festival format of workshops, discussions and a contest ensures a balance of competition, inspiration and learning.

A workshop Staley feels is the most rewarding is “Individual Feedback from a Pro.” “The students get to screen their film for a panel of industry experts, and pros give them constructive feedback,” Staley said.

Categories include action sports, artistic/experimental, comedy, documentary, drama and original animation. Each festival ends with the audience choosing winners, who receive a cash grand prize.

Traveling film fests

• Bow Wow Film Fest: In November, the Bow Wow Film Fest joined the list of film festivals hosted in Dog Town USA. Founded by Susan Kelley in 2014, the traveling event is based in Boulder with showings across the country. Last year, it presented 40 events coast to coast, including Steamboat. Its 35 “short films for the love of dog” are a compilation of work by filmmakers, animators and artists, aiming to educate and inspire. Celebrating the age-old bond between humans and canines, films ranged from highlighting a dog named Captain, a companion of a veteran with PTSD, to the story of a child with Asperger’s forming a canine relationship. Proceeds from the Steamboat event benefitted the Routt County Humane Society.

• Hunting Film Tour: Modeled after the Warren Miller Entertainment ski film tour, the Hunting Film Tour was established in 2013 and features short films promoting the protection and conservation of public lands. The event tours throughout the U.S. and Canada, including an annual stop in Steamboat. Festival partner organizations include the Wild Sheep Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“If you’re a hunter, you’re going to come and see these films because they’re really amazingly done,” Parker said.

• Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival: Yampatika and Friends of the Routt Backcountry partner every year to bring the Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival, a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving winter wildlands, to the Chief Theater.

“The event celebrates the human-powered experience,” Yampatika Program Director Kellie Gorman said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sledding with your 2-year-old or jumping big turns, it’s that beauty and awe of nature that draws us out there and connects us.”

Last February marked the 13th year of the event and featured eight films including “End of Snow,” “Below 0” and “Adventure Not War.” Funds raised from the event were split between Yampatika and Friends of the Routt Backcountry.

• International Fly Fishing Film Tour: The two-night event held every year at the Chief Theater is hosted by and a fundraiser for the Yampa Valley Fly Fishers. The festival’s nine films take viewers across the world, bringing some of season’s most professionally filmed footage to the Yampa Valley. Yampa Valley Fly Fishers uses it to emphasize the preservation of local rivers.

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