Up against a wall

Denver’s River North Art District turns into an outdoor film festival

David Zimmer, “Echo,” his shot film for Side Stories RiNo

couple of winters ago, Fiona Arnold was walking through the streets of Old Town Montreal with her daughter when they turned a corner and saw a film playing on a warehouse wall. The film was looped, an audio booth set up nearby with info. Despite the bone rattling temperatures, people were out and about — going into bars, checking out the movie, enjoying the city.

Back at their hotel, Arnold downloaded an app she saw promoted with the movie and learned the film was just one in a series that made up a walking tour, a sort of outdoor film festival, and she knew it would be perfect for Denver’s artsy, warehouse-heavy River North (RiNo) district.

It took a couple of years for Arnold to set her plan in motion, but now, after just three months of planning and preparation, the Denver Metro Area will be able to experience what Arnold and her team have dubbed Side Stories, from Feb. 21 to March 2 in East RiNo. The installation will run from Broadway to 36th Street and from Blake Street to Larimer Street.

It’s no surprise Arnold saw a connection between RiNo and Old Town Montreal: She’s a developer, president of Mainspring Development in Denver. And from 2015 to 2016, Arnold ran economic development for the state of Colorado as a part of Governor John Hickenlooper’s cabinet. In that position she worked with lots of different organizations, including arts group such as Colorado Creative Industries and the Office of Film, Television & Media.

“In those couple of years I was really exposed to some of the interesting things that were going on and how incredibly entrepreneurial the arts and culture scene is in Colorado,” Arnold says over coffee recently. We’re sitting in the courtyard of Backyard on Blake, a Mainspring Development that transformed a warehouse and the surrounding area near Blake and 31st streets into a cluster of all independent Colorado businesses. With most of the businesses set too far back to see from the road, passersby need to enter the courtyard to see what’s there. It invites exploration, which is what Arnold shoots for in her developments, and what her hope is for Side Stories.

The premise is simple: 10 local artists were assigned one of 10 urban exteriors on which to project short films, structures like the dry ice towers at the corner of 33rd and Walnut, or the side of Epic Brewing. The Side Stories website will provide visitors with an interactive map and audio tour of the event, complete with historical RiNo highlights and block-by-block suggestions about where to stop for a drink and a bite to eat — or even shop — along the way.

To get the project up and running, Arnold’s Mainspring Developers partnered with the RiNo Arts District, the Mary Lester/Martin Family Foundation, the Colorado Office of Film, Television & Media and the Denver Film Society. The organizations were able to pool money in order to provide all artists with a $5,000 grant to create a 3 to 5 minute film loop inspired by RiNo’s historic neighborhoods or the culture of the area, from the railroads to the CRUSH Festival to the street art the area is known for.

“I’d seen the idea [in Montreal] but what I thought made sense, given my history at economic development, is there needs to be a few legs to it,” Arnold says. “One, we need to support local artists and film makers. We wanted new work produced and for the artists to be paid for it. Another leg is to support local businesses, and the third leg is to provide Colorado residents and visitors kind of an entrée into a neighborhood that’s exciting.”

The project is still coming together, and Arnold says the end results of the films is still an unknown. Better that way, she feels; she likes to be surprised.

“The way you get the best product is to not tell them what to do,” she says.

But video artist and photographer David Zimmer sat with us and talked a bit about his project, which has actually been a work-in-progress for a decade. 

“There’s a grouping of trees I’ve been filming over the past 10 years and they are in a storm,” Zimmer says. “Every couple of years I would go back. At first there wasn’t a single house, then there were a few houses, now the trees are dying and they are completely surrounded by houses. It turned into a thing about suburban sprawl and nature and the displacement of nature.”

Other artists and groups involved in the project are Postmodern, Futuristic Films, Gary Emrich, Ivar Zeile (Denver Digerati), CU Denver Student & Faculty Collaboration, HaveyPro Cinema, The Made Shop, Mighteor and Studio Hippo.

Colorado Film Commissioner Donald Zimmer was the first person Arnold called to talk about the idea for the project. He loved the idea — thus the reason the state Film, Television & Media office partnered on the project. Arnold says he’s been talking to philanthropic group across the state to help the Side Stories project grow.

“This year it’s Side Stories RiNo, maybe next year a couple more neighborhoods will get added to it, so it becomes this rolling thing all through the winter,” Arnold says. (Winter because there are more hours of darkness to show films.) “RiNo might have a particular theme, LiHo, the Golden Triangle. It could even be other parts of the state.

“We don’t know where we’re going to go next.”

On the Bill: Side Stories RiNo. 6-10 p.m. Feb. 21-March 2, RiNo Arts District, Broadway to 36th Street, Blake to Larimer streets. This event is free.