After 15 years, Utah Film Center nourishing more people than ever who are hungry for more than Hollywood movies
When Geralyn Dreyfous, Nicole Guillemet and Kathryn Toll brought their experience in the film industry together in 2002 to form what would become the Utah Film Center, they had one main story to tell — sharing the art of nonfiction and independent cinema to Utah audiences.
In its early days, the center consisted of the three women networking with film industry and local community members to organize screenings and sending off news releases and emails from their laptops in random locations around Salt Lake.
The Utah Film Center celebrates its 15-year anniversary by hosting a gala that honors its founders and looks toward the future, Thursday at 7 p.m., at the City Library, where the nonprofit got its start.
“We created what was then the Salt Lake City Film Center at the City Library because we figured the programming should be free and modeled more like NPR,” Dreyfous said. “There was a moment where there was a need to really support independent documentary filmmakers that were doing investigative work. With storytelling going more digital, it seemed appropriate to do it at the library.”
In the beginning, the Utah Film Center aimed to provide free screenings and panel discussions with filmmakers of documentary films. Dreyfous, Toll and Guillemet — all of whom had spent several years working with or bringing movies to the Sundance Film Festival — identified a hunger in the community for more than just Hollywood blockbuster films.
“We had three generations of people grow up at Sundance,” Dreyfous said. “Utah audiences are much more film literate than they give themselves credit for — and they are also hungry to educate themselves and other people about the issues that they care about.”
Guillemet, who dreamed up the idea for the Film Center after an inspiring conversation with mentor and longtime friend Lon Watson, said that realizing the center stemmed from 16 years of witnessing the growing interests and demands of audience members at the Sundance Film Festival.
“When I started working at the Sundance Film Festival in 1985, the Salt Lake City audience was very small,” Guillemet recalled in an email from a film festival in Egypt. “I had to beg my friends to attend the documentary and foreign films when I knew the filmmaker was going to be in attendance. By 2002, the local audience was enthusiastic, huge and starving for more. It needed to be nourished with interesting films on a year-round basis.”
Toll, who spent her life in the movie business, had moved to Park City to break away from the chaos of Hollywood and settle into the quiet of Utah’s mountainous landscape. When Dreyfous approached her with the idea of the Film Center, she couldn’t say no.
“When I arrived [in 2002], there was one art house [in Salt Lake] for screenings,” Toll said. “[Utah] was a landscape of megaplexes and Hollywood movies. I thought this was a great idea because the Film Center had the intention to show documentaries, independent films and foreign films — and bring in filmmakers and have discussions. It was something that didn’t exist in the local culture.”
Fifteen years later, the Utah Film Center — which has screened approximately 4,000 films since it began — has grown from three staff members to 17, from one screening a month in Salt Lake City to up to four a week in venues across the state, and has expanded into hosting two mini film festivals: Tumbleweeds for young audiences and Damn These Heels, centering on topics within the LGBTQ community. The Film Center also hosts a number of educational workshops across the state, taking the art of storytelling and filmmaking into the classroom, as well as works with local organizations such as Spy Hop, a digital media education organization for youth, to provide educational resources for youth seeking to engage with the art of filmmaking.
“We went in a lot of different directions, but we were all very locally knitted into the fabric of the community,” Toll said. “What we were was a vibrant spark in the community that got different ideas out. Today, it is becoming an institution.”
The center has faced challenges in its 15 years, none bigger than the fire that heavily damaged the organization’s Main Street office on March 29, 2016.
“We lost everything,” Dreyfous said, including all the original material for the Oscar-winning documentary “Born Into Brothels,” for which she was one of the producers.
After the fire, Dreyfous said, “we learned a lot about how the community cares for us. Utah is an amazing place when people need things, the kind of triage that happens.” Businesses donated temporary office space, and eventually the group moved into its current home in the Broadway Media Building on 300 South.
Utah Film Center executive director Elisabeth Nebeker said that as the center looks toward the next 15 years, education — as well as finding ways to support independent filmmakers — continues to be at the forefront of its mission.
“Film and digital media arts is now recognized as the fifth arts discipline in the schools,” Nebeker said. “Art teaches our children to be well-rounded human beings. We really need to do what we can to make sure that our state understands the importance of the arts and from the media arts to humanities. Kids are constantly on their phones and constantly using images. It is an important part of our education to make [media and digital arts] relevant in the classroom.”
Dreyfous adds that the center will continue to work toward realizing its own space to host screenings — and work with filmmakers in offering support for them to tell their stories and deliver these stories to the masses.
“I would like us to continue to be a resource for artists,” she said. “Artists are a very precious commodity and they need so much more support than just a fiscal sponsorship. It’s harder and harder for filmmakers to be able make a living in this world. We have to be thinking about these artists and storytellers. We will be looking at new ways to distribute film. It’s not just about the film, it’s about the reaction to the film and the impact of the film. We want to keep that going so that caliber of people can be a change agent once they see the film.”