Winter Park’s first film festival takes place this weekend

Much of the Winter Park Film Festival will be held at The Foundry Cinema & Bowl.
Sky-Hi News archive photo

Winter Park Film Festival is taking place Sept. 8-9 and showcasing over 40 films. Tickets are available now.

Organizers of the film festival are hoping to “honor and highlight the unique contributions to filmmaking from a wide variety of communities and film subjects,” according to their mission statement.

Festival director, Connor Nelson, grew up in Grand County and got the idea to host a film festival during his senior year in film school. The Winter Park Film Festival had been in development ever since.

However, Nelson’s journey into film has been anything but straightforward. Around five years ago Nelson admitted himself into rehab, where he stayed for 30 days. After being released from rehab he returned to skiing, but suffered a serious knee injury after two months. As the weather began to warm up and ski season came to an end, Nelson began working in construction.

“After the winter was over I found myself swinging a hammer on a framing crew. Even though the long days somewhat felt rewarding, I knew construction wasn’t where I wanted to spend my life. I eventually gave in to the pain and scheduled knee surgery,” Nelson said in a blog post.

While he was recovering from the knee surgery he was unable to work.

“Over the few months of downtime, I was able to rethink my life and pick up hobbies that I had thrown away because of addiction,” Nelson said in the same blog post.

His best friend, Parks Thompson, approached him and asked him if he would help film a music video for him. Nelson picked up the camera. His battle with addiction had interrupted his previous involvement with film making.

While holding the camera, he remembered the love he had for film making. Suddenly, he could see himself as a filmmaker.

With the help of his family, he was able to enroll in college as a 28 year old and attended Columbia College Chicago to study film. He took a class called strategic distribution of film making where he learned the ins and outs of submitting to film festivals.

He was amazed at the amount of film festivals in Colorado: Telluride Film Festival, Breckenridge Film Festival, Aspen Filmfest and more.

But there was nothing like this in Grand County. This was where the idea for a film festival in Winter Park originated. After talking with a professor of his about the idea, he hit the ground running.

The creation of this festival has been a grind. He did not realize how much work planning a film festival would be, but it didn’t stop him.

However, he encountered one snafu; he didn’t live in Grand County anymore. He lived in Los Angeles working as a freelance cinematographer. Yet, Nelson was close with someone who did live in Grand County.

“I told my best friend Parks Thompson this is an idea that I want to create and you know, he’s been kinda there helping me get this thing going since the very beginning,” Nelson said.

Thompson was recruited for this project and has been the boots on the ground ever since.

They have since received 168 submissions from 17 different countries. The organizers narrowed these submissions down to 40 films that will be screening at the film festival. Nelson is hoping that the films selected will resonate with the community.

Grand County residents might not be familiar with the film festival experience. Film festivals, Nelson says, are much different from a typical Hollywood theater experience. These events give independent filmmakers the center stage. Some of these independent films take over a decade to complete. There is a different kind of charm to these independent films. Nelson says that film festivals are a way of supporting independent filmmakers and celebrating the art of film.

Something surprised the Winter Park Film Festival staff was the overwhelmingly positive response they got to the disability film category.

“The disability films category was one of the biggest and best turnouts in terms of submissions,” Nelson said. “Some of our best films are from that category.”

“Take Me Home” is about Anna, an adult with a cognitive disability, living with her mother in Midland, Florida.
Winter Park Film Festival/Courtesy photo

Winter Park Film Festival staff want to make the festival inclusive and accessible to everyone regardless of ability.

Film festivals have sometimes struggled with accessibility. At Sundance this year, jurors for the U.S Dramatic Competition walked out during a film because the festival failed to provide adequate captioning for deaf and hearing impaired audience members, which included juror Marlee Matlin.

The Winter Park Film Festival is also going to donate money to the H.O.P.E. (Healing Opportunities through Prevention Efforts) Fund. This fund is dedicated to supporting and expanding Grand County mental health advocacy and services, substance abuse prevention, and recovery services and access to outdoor recreation as a protective factor to support mental and physical well-being.

Organizers of the film festival simply want visitors to have fun. For many Grand County residents, this may be their first time at an event like this. Nelson has some tips for first-timers.

He tells people to check out the film list ahead of time in order to get a good idea of what they want to see at the festival. He assures people that there is a film that everyone will enjoy. Student films, documentaries and narrative shorts are all being shown.

Nelson even has a few movies that he’s excited for.

“‘Elemental’ is one that I’m really excited about. It is a documentary feature. I’ve been telling everybody it’s the wildfire documentary of the decade, very scientific and thorough in their investigations. And it debunks a lot of the myths…that a lot of people have about fires,” Nelson said.

“Elemental: Reimagine Wildfire” is a documentary that asks the question of whether homes, communities, healthy forests and fire can coexist.
Winter Park Film Festival/Courtesy photo

He’s also excited for “Bloom” a documentary short that follows a Sierra Schlag who navigates the world after losing her father on 9/11. Schlag navigates grief as well as her identity as a Japanese-American woman and heals through skiing.

Another film that Nelson is excited for is “Dreama Team” which is a documentary short. It’s a film about an amateur runner and mom, Dreama Walton. The film follows this mother as she competes in America’s biggest ultra-marathon. The film discusses her difficult upbringing and how determined she is to show her daughter the value in doing hard things like running.

Accomplished cinematographer Todd Schlopy will also be in attendance as the festival’s keynote speaker. Schlopy’s most recent work was filming many of action sequences in “Barbie.” His filmography also includes work on “The Highwaymen,” “The Revenant,” “Furious 7,” “The Parent Trap” and the cult classic, “Ski Patrol.” He will be speaking Sept. 9 and tickets are available to see him speak.

Some of the equipment used to film “Top Gun: Maverick” will also be available for viewing at The Foundry Cinema & Bowl during the festival.

Nelson makes it clear, however, this project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many. He says that the town board of Winter Park and Fraser were huge supporters of this festival.

“We’re really excited to have this event. We’re going to continue to improve and make it bigger and better every year,” Nelson said.

Visit their website for information regarding the schedule for the two day long film festival.

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.