Residents in Ophir gather for a socially-distanced Mountainfilm screening. Festival officials said that delivering the programming virtually was a success. (Photo courtesy of Sue Hehir)

If you’ve ever attended a Mountainfilm screening, you’re familiar with the emotional punch that the festival’s documentaries often pack, taking viewers on a rollercoaster ride of joy, beauty, outrage, despair, enlightenment, awe and bliss. Sometimes signaled by the telltale sniffles in a darkened theater or the unrestrained hoots of anticipation as the intro reels roll, it’s generally a weekend of emotionally charged inspiration. This year is no different, despite the festival’s transition to an all-virtual platform.

This year, passholders are setting up home theaters and enjoying the ride from the couch, but that hasn’t stopped enthusiasts from sharing recommendations and communicating with one another. On Facebook, the public group Mountainfilm Festival Forum has over 500 members and acts as a virtual Main Street of sorts — a place where people can “cross paths” with other festival participants, share recommendations, and express their feelings on films so far.

One forum member wrote, “I am so enjoying the virtual festival! Great job Mountainfilm for allowing us to access this experience at home. I never thought I’d be enjoying the festival curled up with my hound dogs,” before sharing her list of recommendations with others.

Another posted a photo of her cat enjoying a documentary about reproductive rights and wrote, “Watching [the film] “Personhood” with my cat Ted in Ohio. See you next year!” 

“As of May 20, we had 5,194 passholders and sold 1,975 single-program tickets, reaching 7,169 people around the world,” said Sage Martin, the festival’s executive director. “We had people join our online festival from all 50 states and 134 countries. Although nothing beats gathering in person, in Telluride, the online festival allowed us to reach people where they are: in their homes and on their own time.”

Locally, viewers haven’t let the virtual festival format deprive them of the beloved tradition of outdoor films under the stars. While the free nightly film screenings in Town Park are not happening this year, some families have created their own outdoor movie nights.

“In Ophir, families have been organizing outdoor screenings and inviting neighbors over for a socially-distance friendly movie night,” Martin said. “Everyone brings their own seating, blankets and sleeping bags — Base Camp theater style — and hoots and hollers as Mountainfilm's iconic Adrenaline and Shorts programs bring the stoke.”

With so many people across the world tuning it for the virtual festival, it was necessary to create a strong tech support team to help viewers of all tech levels field the pitfalls of streaming a virtual film festival. Stephen Burns, Mountainfilm’s tour assistant who’s helped with tech support during the festival, expressed his enthusiasm that so many people have been able to successfully navigate technological difficulties to participate.

“We’ve gotten phone calls from people saying, I have a ticket to the festival, I have a TV, now what do I do?” Burns said. “And there's an audience that's been attending Mountainfilm for a very long time, that may not be the most tech savvy, and we’ve been able to help them get connected. So far, it’s been so gratifying, because pretty much everyone has been able to get set up to stream the festival on their TVs at home. There is a lot of satisfaction in that. It’s been really great so far."

Martin agreed that despite this year’s inability to provide the unique experience of Mountainfilm in Telluride, there have been some silver linings when it comes to inclusivity.

“Mountainfilm has an amazing community — and while I think everyone misses that in person, more intimate element, we've been able to reach people who never had the time or resources to make it happen,” she said.