They weren’t sure anybody would show up, but it seemed like a fun idea: to organize a film festival in Boulder.
The year was 2003, and Robin and Kathy Beeck had made some short films – funny shorts, like one about the “Frozen Dead Guy” in Nederland (that’s a grandpa who asked to be put on ice in a shed after he died, where he remains to this day). They’d attended some film festivals and had a blast.
“We thought, ‘Somebody should start a festival in Boulder; it’s the perfect place for that,’” says Robin Beeck. “So we decided, ‘What the heck.’”
They would organize one themselves.
“We didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen,” Robin Beeck says. “We didn’t know if anyone would come. It could just be that nobody cares.”
But people cared. In fact, that first year, 5,000 people showed up. That’s how the Beecks knew they were onto something.
Twenty years later, the Boulder International Film Festival has grown into one of the biggest events in Boulder, drawing filmmakers and producers from around the world. This year’s event, Feb. 29-March 3, is expected to draw more than 20,000 people.
BIFF is four days of local, national and international films shown at various locations in downtown Boulder. The festival has a reputation for bringing in big stars, such as Alec Baldwin, James Franco and Martin Sheen, to name a few.
BIFF is much more than film screenings; it’s a whole celebration of film, with panel discussions, happy hours and parties, live music and food prepared by some of the region’s top chefs at the annual CineChef event. This event challenges area chefs to create film-inspired dishes.
In honor of the big 2-0 anniversary, this year’s celebrations are extra big. Details are still being sorted out, but there’s talk about showing some of the most popular films from the past years for free, as a way to give back to the community. (BIFF always has ample free activities to make it inclusive. That may include free cake on the Pearl Street Mall this year.)
The Beecks are also considering putting together a short film featuring BIFF highlights from the past 20 years, honoring those special moments. Like when the whole Boulder Theater sang happy birthday to former U.S. Rep. John Lewis. The time the theater broke into a massive air guitar party after a film about air guitars. The Beecks remember a local animator commenting on that event, “If you have BIFF for another 50 years, you will never top this night.”
“I like to think he was wrong about that,” Kathy Beeck says.
Maybe this year will rise to the occasion.
A lot has changed over the past two decades. Back then, BIFF only spanned two venues (in 2024 it will have six), didn’t have a call-to-action program, no CineChef, no singer-songwriter events or educational outreach programs. But BIFF has always had pretty fantastic parties, the Beecks say.
“We’ll never forget those early years – learning opportunities,” says Kathy Beeck. Like the time they were waiting for their first big celebrity, actor Chevy Chase, with the red carpet all rolled out – and they realized they forgot to set up his ride to the theater. Kathy Beeck had to quickly call her boyfriend to get the guest of honor. Today, she just laughs about it.
“We have a lot of good, fun memories,” she says. “And we have gotten a lot more organized over the years.”
One reason BIFF was so successful, Robin Beeck says, was because they compiled their favorite elements from the other festivals they had attended and put them all together into one mother-of-them-all extravaganza. For example, they centered the festival around one area of town to make it easy to get from event to event on foot; they have always recruited volunteers to pick up filmmakers at the airport and show them around; they capped the festival at four days, no longer; and they made sure to incorporate food, drink and talks into the activities to help elevate the experience. BIFF has also worked with more than 150 nonprofits over the years and offers a special youth program.
BIFF hasn’t missed a year, not even during the Covid-19 restrictions. During that time, BIFF offered 16 weeks of Saturday night drive-in movies for people to enjoy in their own cars. They sold out nearly every screening.
“Filmmakers come back year after year because they’re treated so well and our audiences are some of the most enthusiastic on the planet. Our gigantic venues are often filled, and people eat it up; they’re dying to see an incredible film with a great story, and we’re lucky to have so many incredible volunteers and folks who support us,” Kathy Beeck says. “A lot of the industry comes out for BIFF. It’s how they’re treated and how they feel welcome here.”
Today, BIFF offers a year-round outreach program for senior citizens. It has expanded to the Longmont Museum.
“People come over and over again, and they trust us to screen the greatest stories. We feel like that is one of our strongest points: an outstanding program,” Kathy Beeck says. “Film has the power to change the world. The best films are the ones you never forget.”
Stay in the Know
For more details about film selections, free programs and announcements about the 20th anniversary of BIFF, bookmark Biff1.com and keep an eye on BIFF’s social media pages.