Denver Public Library's Saturday Matinee series draws big names

Walter Chaw has spent nearly every weekend since April talking about movies for the Denver Public Library’s Saturday Matinee series. But as a film critic, author, teacher and former Alamo Drafthouse Cinema vice president, that’s not all he can do.

“When you’re in front of a Zoom meeting, it’s a bit like conducting a one-on-one conversation with 100 people at once,” Chaw said this week. “It’s exhausting, and I get easily distracted if I notice someone getting up or their cat jumping in the background. I wonder, ‘Did I do something to offend or bore them?’ “

Due to that — and the fact that, after years of academic lecturing, Chaw is sick of listening to himself talk — he began inviting guests to his virtual discussions, hosted at denverlibrary.org. Seminars about films such as “Sudden Fear” (May 2), “Daughters of the Dust” (July 11) and “Rashomon” (Sept. 5) were no doubt insightful for viewers, but Chaw needed more interaction.

He’s used to forging connections with writers, directors and actors, as he did with Alamo Drafthouse events that brought figures such as Oliver Stone and Bryan Cranston to Denver. Thanks to that, and his gregarious, unvarnished Twitter conversations with artists he admires, he’s secured serious star power for his modest public-library series.

“The guests have given it some momentum, and I’ve found a real hunger among the creative community to do something like this, which is for a good, nonprofit, community cause,” Chaw said. “Not having to travel to Denver has made so much possible. Do you think Edgar Wright or Guillermo Del Toro can fly to Denver for an hour while they’re in post-production on their new films? No way.”

Starting with “Night of the Living Dead” on Oct. 17, Chaw has digitally hosted acclaimed directors Scott Derrickson (Marvel’s “Doctor Strange”), Lexi Alexander (“Punisher: War Zone”), the aforementioned Wright (“Baby Driver,” “Sean of the Dead”), Allison Anders (“Gas Food Lodging”), Alex Winter (“Zappa,” but also “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”) and more. His latest guests, which he shared with The Denver Post this week, are arguably his highest-profile yet.

On Saturday, Jan. 2, Chaw will welcome former Denver resident and recent Denver Film Festival honoree Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi,” “Knives Out”) for a virtual discussion about 2013’s elusive sci-fi curio “Under the Skin.” Future installments for the program, which is slated to end in February, include Oscar-winning director Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water”) on Jan. 9, and Emmy-nominated actor, writer and director Natasha Lyonne (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Russian Doll”) on Feb. 6.

Thanks to the recent growth of the series, Chaw has watched pre-registration jump from about 30 people per session to an average of 150, with some future sessions already nearing 500 reservations. The library has also tracked 1.5 million impressions for it, Chaw said, and has begun uploading edited versions to YouTube after viewer requests.

Chaw credits friend and artist Chris Gyorgy, the special events coordinator for Denver Public Library, for asking him to do it and keeping it going, as well as librarian Daria Marchenko for her ongoing work on the series.

“I couldn’t do it without them,” said Chaw, who’s already devising more ways to sweeten the deal, such as a custom-commissioned poster that could be mailed to registrants after each online session. “Without autographs or shaking hands — which was the draw for a lot of (formerly in-person) events like this — we need to find ways to expand into different media spaces.”

The series draws most of its titles from Kanopy, the free, Netflix-style streaming service packed with educational and documentary films, but also narrative features going back decades — including Criterion Collection editions. It’s been a boon to home-viewers with library memberships, Chaw said, and he considers it “a huge responsibility to program these titles and not fall into a solipsistic hole.”

Whether the series continues after February, Chaw has plenty to do. He reviews a crush of new films each month for respected Canadian website Film Freak Central and is always working on a new script or book. His eight-year-old monograph about 1989’s “Miracle Mile” has gone into multiple printings recently after selling out signed copies on film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’ online book store. Every so often, news leaks out about one of the projects he’s working on with a producer or studio.

On Dec. 14, Deadline reported that directors Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill had inked a first-look deal with Blumhouse Productions, the wildly successful horror and genre-film company that’s backed “The Invisible Man,” the “Paranormal Activity” series and “BlacKkKlansman,” among many others. The pilot for “Full Body Burden,” which Chaw wrote, was mentioned as part of the deal.

Inspired by the book of the same name by Kristen Iversen, it tells “the true story of a deadly government secret hidden in plain sight: the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant just outside of Denver,” according to Deadline. But we’ll have to wait for it to go into production for Chaw to dish on that, or any of his other secretive film and TV projects. He’d prefer to underline the accessibility and ease of his film series, despite his running anxiety about the lack of a live audience.

“This format was always the redheaded stepchild of presentation, the very last resort,” Chaw said of digitally streamed discussions. “Hopefully it’s gaining a more prominent place in our cultural landscape and won’t just be relegated to the sidelines. What’s the next evolutionary step of (digitally streamed events)? The pandemic forced that question, and there’s certainly room for improvement.”

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