Denver Film is remodeling the Sie Center on Colfax and rethinking its programming
“It was fun to have a physical refresh, because it also puts us in the space of an organizational refresh of why are we doing what we’re doing?”
For the last 19 months, save for a few pop-up events and private screenings, Denver Film’s Sie Film Center on Colfax Avenue has been mostly dark.
But last week, the three-theatre cinematheque opened to the public for the first time since the pandemic began, hosting public screenings for its Oct. 28-31 soft reopening ahead of this year’s Denver Film Festival. Film lovers flooded into the theatres to catch showings of new Wong Kar-wai restorations, horror classics accompanied by live reenactments by drag performers, and new films like Spanish dark comedy El Planeta and the documentary Without Getting Killed or Caught.
“It’s a pretty emotional day to turn everything on — turn on theater monitors, poster screens, get the concessions open. It’s surreal. It’s been a long 19 months,” said Gina Cuomo, Denver Film’s director of operations. “It’s been a lot of tears in this building. But very happy to be getting back into it and seeing familiar faces, and hopefully a lot of new ones.”
The last year and a half has been challenging for the Sie Center. When it shut down in March 2020, many staffers were furloughed, and those who stayed on had to take pay cuts.
For a while, all the nonprofit could do was offer guests online programming and movie snack packs to be picked up at the Sie Center. Cuomo said she spent many of those months completely alone in the building, because someone had to stay and run it. She said it was “scary” at times. There were posters covering the windows, an attempt to close them off during the 2020 summer protests, so there wasn’t a lot of light coming in.
“It was very dark in here. Very dark, very quiet, very lonely,” Cuomo said. “Considering we’re in the basement of a parking garage, you hear a lot of creeks from the cars. Naturally, my mind goes to, oh, my god. There’s a killer, there’s a ghost!”
The cinematheque allowed fans to book private screenings, but the building largely sat in disuse. Denver Film considered opening in spring of 2021 when other movie theatres did, but it didn’t seem like its audience was ready to return. Plus, Cuomo said there weren’t a lot of new independent films to showcase.
Instead, Denver Film leaders saw the shutdown as an opportunity to make renovations to the Sie Center they’d been dreaming about for years.
Denver Film is a nonprofit, relying on grants and donations to operate. Earlier in the pandemic, Denver Film applied for federal Shuttered Venues Operators Grants, which offered relief to venues that had to close during the pandemic. The nonprofit outlined a budget that included a plan for Sie Center renovations, as well as backpay for full-time staff members who’d taken pay cuts to keep the Denver Film running when no revenue was coming in.
The budget did not cover backpay for part-time workers who’d been furloughed earlier in the pandemic, said Marty Schechter, Denver Film’s PR representative. He said that based on federal guidelines, they could not provide furloughed staff backpay for work they did not not perform.
“Our goal was to help make our full time staff whole after many pay cuts,” Schechter said. “The backpay was focused on helping our staff that had taken pay cuts to help get through the pandemic.”
Denver Film began the renovations in August. It was a two-month process, and while the theatres were already closed to the public, they couldn’t host private screenings during that time either.
Now, just in time for Denver Film Fest’s opening on Nov. 3, the first phase of updates is complete. Most of the renovations were designed to improve flow and create more public gathering space. There’s a new box office with more advanced ticketing technology, an updated concession stand, and an expanded lobby area. The cinematheque’s smaller theatre, which got new seats in 2013, is now outfitted with new, custom seat caps. Cuomo said the two larger theatres hadn’t gotten new seats since about 2006. Those theatres have now been outfitted with brand new seats.
“They were overdue,” she said. “But it’s not an easy feat to do if you have to cease operations to do the whole process. ”
Cuomo decided to keep two of the old seats in the remodeled lounge. One has a plaque bearing the name Brit Withey, Denver Film’s longtime artistic director who died in 2019. The other will bear Denver Film founder Ron Henderson’s name.
Schechter said Denver Film has invested $250,000 in building improvements. While the building’s major structural changes are complete, Denver Film plans to bring in new furniture, lighting and displays. It also plans to refurbish the bar area with artwork by local artists.
Closing for the pandemic gave Denver Film the opportunity not only to rethink Denver Film’s physical space, but the way it operates as a company.
“It was fun to have a physical refresh, because it also puts us in the space of an organizational refresh of why are we doing what we’re doing? How are we doing it? What can we do better? What should we be planning for the future?” said Denver Film CEO James Mejia. “The physical space is a representation of that for us. Now that we’re going to be open again, it feels like a fresh start.”
For instance, the popularity of last year’s drive-in movies at Red Rocks — which were planned as a safe way to experience cinema during the pandemic — led Denver Film to continue that series this year, and to program a holiday edition.
Mejia said running a virtual Denver Film Fest last year opened it up to a larger audience, including more people outside metro Denver. This year, Denver Film will continue to offer virtual components, making it more accessible to people who can’t attend, whether because of COVID, disability or because they’re out of town.
“I’m hoping that trend continues and that we pull people in,” Mejia said. “That was only because of being shut down and having to reinvent and pivot. It keeps another tool in the toolbox.”
The pandemic also opened Denver Film up to more partnerships, including the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, which is working with Denver Film to present three films at the festival: The Harder They Fall, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, and King Richard.
Mejia said Denver Film is also putting more support and resources behind diverse programming.
“Dragon Boat is getting better every single year. We just announced the new award for Cinema Q highlighting excellence in LGBTQ-plus filmmaking,” Mejia said. “I think all these little pieces are adding into a greater whole.”
Check out the renovated Sie Film Center at Denver Film Festival, which runs Nov. 3-14. All guests attending screenings must provide proof of vaccination and wear a mask except when actively eating or drinking.
This story has been updated to clarify that Denver Film’s Shuttered Venues funding did not cover furloughed part time employees, based on federal guidelines.