Boulder is home to one of the most unusual film experiences in the country.
In this theater, you can see both classic films on reel-to-reel 35mm film projectors, as well as new releases as they’re launched in New York on the most cutting-edge digital projection systems. The old and the new are both equally honored.
The International Film Series on the University of Colorado campus has long been an art leader in Boulder. It’s gearing up to celebrate its 80th birthday in 2021.
The series, held in the Muenzinger Auditorium on campus, is also one of a handful of programs in the United States with a seasonal calendar. In other words, the films here are carefully curated, scheduled far in advance and typically only shown one time on one single night — not over and over all day for weeks until they stop making money. This unique nonprofit prioritizes the artistic value and cinematic quality of its lineup over profit; its staff isn’t afraid to pick a film that’s important but won’t sell out the seats.
“The benefit is it locks in the eclectic program you had in mind and wanted to share with the community. It keeps you from being greedy,” says Pablo Kjølseth, the coordinator of the International Film Series. He hand-selects each film on the calendar, along with occasional suggestions from CU faculty. “From a financial standpoint, there’s a downside, but from a more artistic, curatorial standpoint, it keeps you focused on what really should matter — which is providing variety.”
That value is at the heart of the program and why it was founded to begin with in the ’40s: to bring movies to Boulder that the community might otherwise not get to see.
Back then, founders were reading about all these movies coming out in Los Angeles and New York, but Boulder was not on the distribution radar. We’re talking Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, James Cagney. Several faculty members joined together to bring these movies to Boulder. (Fun fact: One International Film Series founder actually put on the first-ever “Romeo and Juliet” production at the Mary Rippon Theater in 1944 — the show that inspired the foundation of the famous Colorado Shakespeare Festival years later.)
The high demand for these arthouse cinema and classic movies took the campus by surprise. It ended up forging the path for other theaters to start similar programming, too, says Kjølseth. Soon, Boulder had many other single-screen theaters, some of which also featured arthouse cinema.
In the late ’60s and ’70s, there were hundreds of these kinds of film houses throughout the nation, but as technology and time transformed the movie business, most closed. Today, the International Film Series is one of only 12 remaining seasonal calendar programs, Kjølseth says. Most of Boulder’s other arthouse theaters have also closed.
But the International Film Series remains, and it holds an important role in Boulder, says Kjølseth.
“Because we don’t worry about making money with everything we screen and we still are very much based on being a champion for movies of high quality, we will screen movies that the multiplex wouldn’t touch, movies that might be too controversial,” he says.
For example, last semester, the series screened “The Nightingale,” a film that took on intense topics, like violence and rape.
“It’s a period piece, just very moving but harsh,” says Kjølseth. “I knew it wasn’t going to get a big audience, but it was important work.”
But controversial films are far from the only thing you’ll find on the International Film Series calendar. Variety is king. You may find a Boulder premiere, a documentary or a screening of a restored 35mm classic. The list spans everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” to classic to new foreign films (don’t miss “Serie Noire” April 28) to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
You can catch silent films shown to live music. Recently, there was a black-and-white version of Golden Globe-winner “Parasite.”
The series also organizes special events and collaborates with other film festivals. It brings award-winning filmmakers, like Albert Maysles and Werner Herzog, to Boulder.
Today, the International Film Series brings more than 100 films to Boulder every year, most shown in the 400-seat Muenzinger Auditorium. Some are also shown in the 200-seat Visual Arts Complex. Tickets can’t be purchased in advance. Only at the door. But due to the size of the theaters, shows rarely sell out. Still, the series sees about 20,000 attendees a year.
Another thing that’s different about this movie-watching experience is there are never 23 minutes of previews and ads, and there are no concessions. Kjølseth says he wants the night to be about the film, not about making money. (Most of the money megaplex-style theaters take in comes from the sugar it sells, not the actual tickets.)
Like old-school cinema, shows also have real, human ushers who sit in the theater, so people don’t just sit on their phones and text or talk the whole time. Staff makes an effort to minimize distractions so viewers can focus on the film itself. The show starts promptly on time.
Film is Kjølseth’s passion, a passion that clearly fuels him to put together a robust program on a bare-bones budget, a series that all but miraculously holds its own next to big-money programs on other campuses. He regularly travels to film festivals, always looking for the best offerings for Boulder.
“I’m looking for films that will be relevant to people in Boulder but also challenge them,” he says.
Kjølseth, who grew up in Boulder, has been attending the International Film Series since he was a junior high student at Baseline Middle School. He’s been programming the series now for 27 years.
The biggest change over that time has been with technology, for better and worse. On one side, he says, technology allows him to do things that would have been impossible back in the day. For example, before the 2016 election, he showed a last-minute Michael Moore documentary and skyped with Moore afterward for a Q&A with the audience.
However, technology has also changed viewing habits. People are addicted to their gadgets and their attention spans are small.
“We’re fighting against the tide when it comes to that, trying to keep alive the torch for older films that often have a slower pace and are more contemplative and patient with their plots. The story development is very different than movies today,” Kjølseth says. “Sometimes it demands a great deal of patience and concentration or understanding and curiosity for another culture.”
While it’s different than a visit to a multi-screen movie theater, he says the dark, spacious Muenzinger Auditorium can be an oasis. An alternative to the fast-paced, overstimulating world.
“Here’s a movie. We’ll provide you a quiet and dark space, and you need to provide your own settled mind and try to disconnect from the world outside,” he says.
If You Go
Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your experience with the International Film Series:
- Most films cost $8 general admission and $7 for CU students and seniors. CU film students get in for free. There are occasionally showings that are free to the public, and you get in free on your birthday. Get $1 off if you ride your bike and show your helmet.
- Don’t be afraid of coming to campus. Park in lot 360 just across from the buffalo statue near the football stadium. This lot only costs $1 per hour after 7 p.m., so parking for a 90-minute movie will only cost a couple of bucks.
- Because campus can be a little disorienting to visitors, give yourself extra time to find the venue. Don’t show up late to the movie.
- Not sure what movie to see? Check out summaries and trailers on the website. Or for an adventure, go on a “blind date” with a movie and see something new.