Movie Mogul

After a 20-Year Artistic Direction Tenure, Aspen Film Hires a Fresh Face from Los Angeles

Maggie Mackay’s auspicious premiere at Aspen Filmfest.

By Andrew Travers November 1, 2015 Published in the Holiday 2015 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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Aspen Film's new artistic director Maggie Mackay

“I’ve been doing film festivals for sixteen years, and you guys want to talk about films more than anybody else.”

Steven Soderbergh at Cannes? Darren Aronofsky at Toronto? Guess again: the speaker was Maggie Mackay, the new artistic director of Aspen Film, on the closing night of Aspen Filmfest in September, addressing a sixth straight night’s packed house of local cinema enthusiasts. She’d been talking film for nearly a week, in theater lobbies and on sidewalks, parsing the finer points of Anomalisa and Truth and Room with gaggles of her new patrons.

Since signing on in August, the forty-year-old Mackay has endeavored to deepen the trust earned by Aspen Film’s long-serving leaders, Laura Thielen and George Eldred, over the past twenty years of booking high-caliber cinema. She’s aiming to maintain their quality of programming at Aspen Film’s three annual festivals, with an eye on expanding year-round programming.

“I want to show the cinephiles the kinds of things they want to see, things that are coming off the festival circuit, and things that might go to the kinds of theaters that we don’t currently have here,” she says.

Mackay is splitting her time between Aspen and Los Angeles, where she’s staying on board at Film Independent. Hiring an artistic director with a foot still planted in Hollywood appears to be a shrewd move by the Aspen Film board. It’s not unlike Theatre Aspen’s and Aspen Words’ enlisting of creative executives who are Broadway and publishing-industry insiders—additions that have raised the level of guest talent and the national profile of those organizations.

For Aspen Film, having a lobbyist in L.A. can keep Filmfest at the table in the increasingly competitive festival game. Top-tier festivals—Telluride and Toronto in particular—have grown more proprietary with their titles, often barring studios from showing movies at subsequent, lower-profile festivals like Aspen’s in order to secure a splashy premiere.

“The arms race for premiere status is one that I’m glad to be out of,” says Mackay, formerly senior programmer at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Mackay clearly understands Aspen’s unique appeal: in her time as director of nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, she often advised emerging filmmakers to try to get short films into Aspen Shortsfest (April 5–10 this coming year). And she notes that the Academy Screenings (Dec. 22–Jan. 2) allow Aspen Film to show prestige movies here that they couldn’t land for Filmfest.

“I firmly believe that there are enough movies to go around that fit every festival,” Mackay says. And she knows from her brief tenure at Aspen Film that there are more than enough film buffs in Aspen to appreciate some art-house selections and titles from cinema’s more far-flung reaches. Like her, we’re ready to roll.

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