Montana film festivals bring the world to your doorstep
By Allison Whitmer
Montana Film Commissioner
In the 1920s, film societies in Europe began to show films that were outside of the Hollywood-dominated cinemas as a forum for expression and ideas beyond the commercial filmmaking system. After the war, Venice and Cannes would become the leading edge of cinematic artistic expression. While the United States had festivals, it wasn’t until the New York Film Festival began in the 1960s that world cinema fans in the U.S. had a consistent venue.
Since then, audiences have been rewarded with incredible collections of films and documentaries shown around the world, with major festivals in Toronto, Berlin and Park City. Montana is no exception, with incredible growth in festivals especially over the past five years. While we won’t get to all of them in this column, we’ll take a trip through festival history and meet some newcomers.
Helena started the trend in 1976 when the Helena Film Society filled the need for alternative cinema at the Second Story Cinema, as the grand vaudeville and movie house, the Marlow Theater, was long gone by then. Undeterred by their makeshift space, the society expanded and took over the historic Lewis and Clark County Jail in the late 1980s and transformed it into the Myrna Loy Center, named after the famed Montana actress.
In Missoula, science and nature filmmakers started the International Wildlife Film Festival in 1977. It is the longest-running event of its kind, beginning at the University of Montana and eventually buying its own theater, the Roxy, in 2002. Wildlife and scientific filmmakers spend thousands of hours in remote, harsh conditions, researching and filming interesting species and tracking predators and prey alike. These talented and engaging filmmakers create the backbone programming of modern television channels like Discovery and Animal Planet.
In time, Missoula would become a major film hub for Montana.
The Montana Film Festival, which also calls the Roxy home, highlights narrative features and shorts that seek to inspire, educate and engage diverse audiences. The success of the Montana Film Festival for narrative work, coupled with the award-winning run of independent features being produced in the state, has opened the door for other programmers.
Documentary films have their day at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Held every year since 2003 in mid-February, this Oscar-qualifying juggernaut shows between 100 and 150 films each year. Its well-curated, worldwide selection of films and documentary education workshops is an incredible asset. Films at this festival have included “Dark Money,” which examines campaign finance, and “Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story.”
Bozeman, another hub of film activity in Montana, created the Bozeman Film Society in 1978 and started screening a wide assortment of foreign and domestic titles unlikely to hit the local multiplexes. Today they screen in the historic Ellen Theater downtown. Having a film school at Montana State University provides a ready supply of eager audiences to augment the community cinephiles.
More recently, the Bozeman Film Celebration fills a niche to explore independent filmmaking and creative expression, focusing its first festival on women’s voices and films encouraging action to preserve our planet. Ted Turner and Jeff Bridges stopped by in 2018, so you never know who you may sit next to!
Down the road in Butte, the Covellite International Film Festival draws filmmakers from across the globe to a converted church theater in Butte, astonishing audiences with its community-driven approach. It has even been featured on Al Jazeera as the unlikely yet hip place to go for indie directors.
Amid the sandstone rims of Billings, the MINT (Montana International Film Festival) dusted off the marquee of the historic Babcock Theater for a smartly run set of films and panels, treating the filmmakers and audiences to new voices in cinema, especially in the Native American community.
The Bigfork Film Festival populates its program with entirely made-in-Montana projects, and they range from award-winning features to student projects from the universities. Special guests have included Hollywood legend Jerry Molen, whose films include “Rain Man” and “Jurassic Park.”
We’ll cover additional festivals in future columns. To learn more in the meantime, please visit the Film Festival section of our website at montanafilm.com.
Photo: The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival’s DocShop is a five-day forum and conference.