NOCO takes center stage on cinematic scene.
by Lisa Kennedy | photos by Ben Bradley
Slated to unfold over three days at multiple locations in Fort Collins and Loveland, the HIFF encapsulates all the ingredients needed to transform a charming local film community into something more formidable. They include a film festival or two of note; a critical mass of hungry-to-create storytellers; some movers and shakers who have their backs; and a gathering place where filmgoers can witness the fruits of all that passion.
The inaugural HIFF may bring NOCO to a tipping point. Or perhaps the intermingling of energized players, vibrant events and devoted audiences is better described as a convergence, uniting several streams of creativity into a potentially mighty artistic current.
“I [want] to turn this town into another Austin,” says HIFF co-director Jesse Nylander in his chill yet slightly breathless way. Austin became a destination for indie cinema dreamers in the mid-1990s, when the South by Southwest music showcase expanded into a must-pay-heed multimedia feast of music, film, cutting-edge tech and digital gaming. NOCO already has the kind of homegrown music scene that gave SXSW its start, along with a hearty cultural stew of visual artists, craft brewers and tech innovators.
“[NOCO] is already fertile ground for creative growth,” says Nylander’s fellow HIFF instigator, John Hunt. “What we really don’t have is an awesome film fest – not just for [Fort Collins] but something to embrace the whole region. That’s why we called it Horsetooth, because Horsetooth [Reservoir] is a regional beacon to the area. We thought it was something you could connect with regardless of whether you were from Fort Collins, Loveland, Greeley or Estes Park.”
The “beacon” metaphor fits an event that revolves around projected light. Beyond celebrating film, HIFF hopes to enlarge the fleet in NOCO’s cultural harbor – to announce the destination and illuminate
Bringing Things Into Focus
“I’ve always wanted to start a film festival – to network that way, to curate films,” Hunt says. “I thought I could do a good job at it if I had the right people.”
A transplant from the East Coast, Hunt arrived three years ago to launch his own film company (Arcadian Pictures) and was pleasantly surprised to find a local film and video community already bubbling. It wasn’t roiling as vigorously as NOCO’s indie music scene, but it had touchpoints with that community and no shortage of energetic creatives. One of them was Nylander, who was running a 48-hour filmmaking blowout he’d dubbed the Weekend Warriors Film Festival.
“I saw that Jesse was as ambitious as I am,” Hunt says. “His motto is: ‘Make more film.’ And gain and again brings you one step closer to doing it better.”
Nylander came to Fort Collins eight years ago and slept in his car at first. He’d start off his day at the old Lyric Theater, Ben Mozer’s funky cool, painted-pink movie joint on Mountain Avenue just off Riverside. “There was an indie night called ‘Billingate’s Ball,’” Nylander recalls. “They would screen local filmmakers’ projects.” He loved it.
When he started working at the Lyric in 2015, Nylander wasn’t shy about his ambitions for himself or the scene. “Every time someone came in, I was quizzing them,” he says. “‘Are you a filmmaker? Do you want to be on a list?’” More often than not, they did. When he upped the ante with Weekend Warrior in 2016, they lined up to compete – and audiences lined up to see the results.
Since then the artplex has only deepened its role as a hip hive for film-loving denizens and arts creatives to gather. Nylander inaugurated a monthly filmmaker meetup, which now attracts about 20 filmmakers and continues to grow. With plenty of local art hanging on the walls and a line of pinball machines blinking and beckoning, the Lyric is an appropriately exotic locale for young artists, veterans of the old school and everyone in between. If a film movement needs a home, the Lyric has provided one.
“Our main mission is to be a hub for artistic expression in Northern Colorado,” says Kait Edwards, the venue’s general manager. “We’re trying to be a place where you can come not just to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie. We want to be a place where we inspire the local filmmakers in our community to create and have a space to show their films to our community.”
It would be near impossible to overstate the significance of the Lyric in this blossoming ecosystem. Much of the credit surely belongs to Ben Mozer, who launched the Lyric in 2007. Filmmaker Andrew Schneider, who moved back to NOCO about a decade ago after a 14-year absence, saw Mozer as “this independent auteur who owns the cinema [and] knows the audience” – exactly what the region needed for homegrown, DIY film to flourish. Schneider invested in the Lyric and helped Mozer move it into its big, bold new space on upper College Avenue. Together, they cultivated an indigenous film sensibility tailored to local appetites.
On a typical weekend in July, the Lyric offered a whip-smart mix of flicks sure to make a film critic’s heart swell. They included the documentaries Halston (on the fashion visionary) and Echo in the Canyon (about the wave of singer-songwriters coming out of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon); the indie horror flick Midsommar; Last Black Man in San Francisco, an elegiac gem about gentrification and one of this year’s finest films; and an entry from the Harry Potter series. The latter drew more than 300 people to the Lyric’s bike-in outdoor screen, which packed ’em in several nights a week all summer long. The projector is housed in a funky, painted tugboat, and the lawn accommodates up to 450 patrons.
But there’s so much more to becoming a film hub than exhibition. The Lyric stands out because it forges and nurtures relationships.
“I’ve watched and worked with a couple of indie and arthouse film orgs throughout the country, and the Lyric really is willing to partner with different community groups in ways that I rarely see,” says Beth Seymour, managing director of the ACT Human Rights Film Festival. “They’re incredibly open to bringing truly collaborative programming into their theater.”
What that looks like in action is that the Lyric hosts year-round programming for the ACT, which is run out of Colorado State’s communications department. (The initials signify “Awaken. Connect. Transform.”) The fest and the Lyric split the costs and profits of those screenings.
With every single film that we do,
there’s always a conversation.
The ACT saves on rentals and marketing, while broadening the audience base for its festival run each April. Meanwhile, the Lyric attracts differently engaged viewers who might be new to the theater – and who might become regulars.
“With every single film that we do, there’s always a conversation,” Seymour says, “whether it’s a panel discussion of local experts or a sit-down with a moderator who can facilitate a community discussion about issues.” For example, this year’s ACT lineup included Jeffrey Palmer’s documentary, N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear, about the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist, followed by an in-person conversation with Brodsky, Momaday and the author’s daughter, Jill.
“We create a forum for people to connect with each other, that really does build community,” Seymour says. “I know all festivals make you feel like you’re a part of something, but ours pushes people to be part of something – to not be just silent but actively talking to one another and the artists.”
Ready for Our Closeup
Andrew Schneider’s as far from a killjoy as can be imagined, but he observes this latest bubbling up with tempered optimism. Asked if NOCO has indeed reached a tipping point, he replies, “I’ve felt that way for 10 years.”
The 35-year-old with a fine beard and beautifully cadenced voice (he studied opera) has been a mover and shaper of NOCO’s creative scene for going on a decade. He served on the boards of Launch NoCo and CreatePlaces. He led the Fort Collins Artery for a year. He lives by the simple yet ambitious mantra of “Let’s put our creatives to work and build a healthier community.” Schneider is leaving NOCO again, this time for the town of Trinidad, but he’s excited about the potential he helped to develop.
“Some things that are happening now will definitely evolve and grow,” he says, ticking off a list of promising trends: Video has become a vital part of FoCoMX, which has been the premiere festival for the first two years of the 53:14 Music Video Experment; interest in and attendance at Nylander’s Weekend Warriors fest is strong; CSU students are part of the filmmaking fold; the local school district offers a film program; and there’s now an AVID post-production facility in the region, courtesy of the Bohemian Foundation. Add to this a generation of rising adults who’ve grown up on YouTube and Adobe Final Cut.
“I do feel that there are younger folks in their 20s, who are also filmmakers, who want to be part of a community that makes stuff, that entertains itself,” says Schneider.
NOCO’s potential as a moving-image mecca isn’t lost on outside observers. “Fort Collins has most of the ingredients necessary for a film hub,” writes Donald Zuckerman, the state’s film commissioner, in an e-mail. “An hour drive from a major airport, with connections to Los Angeles and NYC, plenty of hotel rooms (both moderate priced for crew, and higher-end for talent), crew that lives nearby, a major university, and a great assortment of looks, both older buildings, and new as well.” But it is hard to build a film hub without competitive incentives, he added. “We continue to work on that.”
“What a great area Northern Colorado is, Fort Collins specifically,” adds Kathy Beeck, who co-founded the Boulder International Film Festival with her sister Robin. In March 2019, the Beecks brought an abridged version of their festival to Fort Collins. “We wanted to share what we do at BIFF,” Kathy says. “We curate this great program of world-class films, and we thought it would fit right in with what’s going on in Northern Colorado and the Fort Collins area.” The well-received mini-fest took place at the Lincoln Center, and the offerings – onscreen and off – were curated with local tastes in mind. It’ll return March 5-8, 2020.
Much like BIFF, Horsetooth seeks to pair a local focus with a global reach. “There’s a lot of talent here, and we’re good at doing what we’re doing,” Hunt says. “But it’s hard to expect ourselves to get better without people from outside our bubble. As great as [NOCO] is, as supportive as it is, it’s not nearly diverse enough. That international element to Horsetooth is underlined because we see the importance of bringing different ways of thinking into the area. We want not only to raise awareness of filmmakers in the area, but to help them be aware of other filmmakers in small communities around the world, to help them develop that diversity. And help us all become better filmmakers, because we’re all trying to raise the water for all the boats.”
With HIFF as a new port of entry, there’s no telling what cultural treasures are about to arrive on NOCO’s wharves.
HIFF, Scene by Scene
Sept. 6: Kickoff Gala, Museum of Discovery, Fort Collins, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. A black-tie gala featuring all manner of tech-tweaked storytelling, including AR, VR and immersive filmmaking.
Sept. 7: Main Event, Rialto Theater Center, Loveland, 1 p.m. to midnight. This all-day event forms the heart of the HIFF and offers short films, short films, documentaries, filmmaker Q&As, international feature films, and live music.
Sept. 8: Music Video Category and Closing Ceremony, Lyric Cinema, Fort Collins, 2 to 6 p.m. Dubbed “I Want My MTV Back,” the festival’s final day celebrates music videos old
Passes cost $28 to $95, single tickets from $5 to $20. More info at horsetoothintlfilmfestival.com.