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Getting it Right from the Start: The Durango Film Festival

By diane estelle Vicari

To be the guest of a festival and watch one’s documentary on a screen is a dream and a privilege, but traveling to Durango Film Festival 2001 in Colorado became more of a nightmare. Caught in a snowstorm in Denver and re-routed to Farmington, New Mexico, and finally arrived at my destination some 14 hours after leaving LA. I immediately promised myself this would be the last festival I would attend—until it concluded some nine days later.

Nearly 200 miles from the nearest interstate, at 6,500 feet in elevation, the town of Durango was a Shangri-La, a cultural melting pot of some 15,000 old-time Durangoans, ranchers, cowboys, craftspeople, laborers and artists working in all media, who share one love: film! For nine days last March, they crowded two theatres to watch some 70 films, including 22 documentaries, from morning until night.

At the end of the festival, we documentary filmmakers agreed that this had been one of the richest experiences we had ever had at a festival in a long time. But how could this success have happened in the festival’s first year, and how could it be replicated? I contacted Erik Burke, the Festival Director.


Where did the idea for the Durango Film Festival come from?

Erik Burke: The idea for the festival came after witnessing the high interest in independent film in Durango during monthly screenings held by the Durango Film Society. Durango is a very rich community in terms of arts and culture. The fact that there was no film festival struck me as odd. I decided to feel out the interest in the community for a film festival, and soon we had 20 or 30 people showing up at our meetings.

From a filmmaker's point of view, who had traveled to many film festivals in the US and Europe, my preference was for the longer festivals. The weekend festivals always seemed like they were ending just when they were getting started. So from the start my intention was to put on a nine or 10-day festival. It made sense in Durango in March, too, as flying or driving in can be such a challenge that shorter stays just didn’t make too much sense.


Why Durango, when Colorado has so many other festivals, such as Telluride and Denver?

We look at it from the point of view of Durango, more so than the point of view of the film festival circuit. Most Durangoans don't go to these other festivals, despite their interest in independent film. Besides, Colorado is not such a small state. Telluride is fairly close, but that's a 90-minute drive from Durango. And Denver is on the other side of the Rockies, really a different world. Durango is its own destination. Why not for film?


What were some of the challenges you faced the first year?

First of all, we didn't know what we were doing. We did our best to anticipate potential problems, but without any first-hand experience in the group, we were flying blind. I had an idea of the kind of festival I wanted to pull together, but that gave us only the big picture. One thing we learned about putting on an event of this size is that the true work is in the details—communicating with the sponsors, organizing the tickets and lodging for the filmmakers, tracking the ad sales, plattering the film prints, and tracking and shipping the elements, as well as the contracts, deposits, volunteers and all the venues. It was a lot of work. We were fortunate that several of the staff really went beyond what was expected of them. Once we had everything in place, all we could do is hope that the people would come.


How did you get the word out and market yourself? What was the biggest hurdle to overcome?

The focus was our call for entries effort, at least at first, because I knew that if we didn't get good films, nothing else would matter. So we did a combination of things, including sending entry packages out to film schools worldwide and film associations, like the IDA, along with actively going after films we had heard were good. Our website ( became a major source of information for the filmmakers and festivalgoers, and we registered it with every website and portal we could think of. I can't imagine what hurdles we would have had were it not for the Internet. Many people told us it was their primary source of information. We had no budget for advertising, so we had to depend on press releases to spread the word, and that effort did manage to get us mentioned in several newspapers and magazines. Being an unproven, first-time event, we encountered a lot of skepticism. Many just didn't believe we could do it—even in Durango. I think that all started to change when we announced our film slate; that made it real to them.


What were your screening capabilities?

In Durango we have one of the very first full-time digital cinemas, the Abbey Theater. Tom Bartels, the owner, shows a wide variety of independent films year-round using digital projection. This is still so new that the studios don't yet have digital exhibitors agreements, so they have to go through their standard 35mm contracts and modify the language to reflect the realities of digital projection. It's a great advantage for us. We are able to project any format that we can get a deck for. We are able to screen 35mm (1.85:1 and 2.35:1) and 16mm film. In the 2001 festival, we screened Betacam-SP, DV and DV-CAM. What's really amazing about the Abbey is the visual quality. With the progressive scan converter, the films don't have that video look that comes from interlacing fields. It's easy to forget that you're watching a projected video, and I'm sure many in the audience never noticed or thought about it.


How did the people of Durango react?

Many people in Durango were very supportive of the event. If they hadn't been, we would not have succeeded. In the “show me” atmosphere that greets just about anything new in this town, several people stepped up to support our effort. We got several sponsors and benefactors who helped cover the bottom line, which was great because we started with nothing. We received a lot of in-kind support, including free color copies and some free offset printing, which enabled us to create a lot of posters and brochures to get the word out. Of course the greatest satisfaction was when the audiences came and enjoyed some excellent films they most likely would never have heard of otherwise.


What is the future of the Durango Film Festival? How will you position yourself?

We will keep the festival independent. Putting independent work, new voices in cinema, up on the screen is what we're about. There is such great interest, locally as well as globally, in the DFF that we are quite hopeful that we will be able to create a sustainable organization that not only puts on the annual event calendar but also provides educational and outreach services. We are one of only a few longer-duration festivals around, and that's important to us. The weekend binge festivals are fine, but we offer a different pace, a chance to really see a wide variety of films and savor the experience. Beyond that, we're just looking at next year. We're still an all-volunteer organization. We'd like to change that, but we have some building to do first.


What are your dreams for the festival? What do you wish to avoid?

We're a nonprofit. Sure, we want to be solvent enough to be able to build the Durango Film Festival into a sustainable organization, but we don't need to follow the paths of the opportunistic, for-profit fests that are all about bleeding the independent filmmaker, or the bloated, overcrowded events that have been co-opted by the studios. The festival, at its core, is a celebration of quality, innovative, independent films. Our focus is on getting the best independent films we can, not for their stars, not for the name recognition of the director, but based on the quality of work. These people who make the thousands of independent films each year are why film festivals exist. It's about them and their work.


How did the story of this newborn end?

For us, the festival ended with satisfaction, relief, exhaustion, excitement, self-examination, and a little bit of shock that it went so well. We made some life-long friends. But now as we wrap up the loose ends, we're already gearing up for next year. Now that we know what we're doing, and actually have the time to do it, we can't afford to rest.


IDA Board Member diane estelle Vicari is an independent documentarian and owner of DOCdance Productions. She received the 2000 IDA/Pare Lorentz Award for SUGIHARA Conspiracy of Kindness.