For one week, Denver is center of TV universe | Arts & Entertainment

The week-long SeriesFest, which wrapped its eighth year Wednesday, has become a very big deal for Denver and the local entertainment industry.

By the end of what is essentially a film festival for independent episodic TV, 13,000 attended events that included a pilot competition featuring 56 titles from all over the world, a fascinating “Pitch-A-Thon” for dreamers to present their ideas before a panel of industry bigwigs; a live “staged reading” of the first episode of a proposed miniseries about the namesake of the Hubble Telescope; and a blowout party at Red Rocks hosted by Amber Ruffin that included Denver comic Justine Marino and a concert from Lake Street Dive.

That was a bit of a homecoming for Ruffin, who lived in Denver for a year performing in The Second City’s original sketch comedy “How I Lost My Denverginity” at the Denver Center’s Galleria Theatre. But Sunday was her first time at Red Rocks.

SeriesFest Red Rocks

Amber Ruffin, host of ‘The Amber Ruffin Show,’ addresses the Red Rocks crowd at SeriesFest.

“It was 100 percent worth it to come back just to see Red Rocks. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Ruffin said backstage before introducing a razor-sharp episode of her “The Amber Ruffin Show” focusing on White privilege.

“Denver has stayed Denver,” Ruffin said. “Sorry about the truth, but it’s a bunch of hippies here – and hippies are my people.”

You really have to dive in to SeriesFest to truly understand the vibe and the prestige that this little unicorn dreamed up by Randi Kleiner and Kaily Smith Westbrook has become for the city, which had its own thriving TV-making apparatus in place in the 1980s before our politicos tossed it into the garbage and sent all that industry down I-25 to New Mexico.

But for the past six days, at least, Denver, the birthplace of cable TV, felt all the world like L.A.

“I would argue that SeriesFest has been a big deal from the get-go,” said Kathleen Ross Ham, a partner at Radical Artists Agency, which reps many of the participating actors. “It’s a big deal because it brings notable people to Denver, for its utilization of Red Rocks, for its collaboration with Denver Film – and the content is great.”

Not to mention: Deals get done.

Officials estimate SeriesFest drew 575 out-own-town visitors to Denver. The closing ceremony featured a talk from stand-up comic and TV host W. Kamau Bell. Among other recognizable faces were Jim O’Heir, who played Garry Gergich in 121 episodes of “Parks and Recreation”; Philip Rosenthal, creator of the sitcoms “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Somebody Feed Phil”; Denzel Whitaker, who played a young Forest Whitaker (no relation) in “Black Panther”; and comedian Adam Pally, best known from the cult ABC sitcom “Happy Endings.”  

Pally was in town with fellow comedian Jon Gabrus to screen a Denver-based episode of their new “101 Places to Party Before You Die,” a reality travel show that premieres July 12 on truTV. Pally and pal essentially spent eight weekends in eight cities exploring where to eat, drink and play. In Denver, they take viewers to places like Red Rocks, the International Church of Cannabis and Arapahoe Basin, where Gabrus broke a rib skiing. For them, it was serendipitous to be invited to SeriesFest just two months before they are about to give the Denver party tourism industry a major Jell-O Shot in the arm. The Denver episode was shown to howling applause at the Sie FilmCenter.

“I think it’s the right move to have SeriesFest here in Denver, because people in L.A. would skip it if it were in their hometown,” said Gabrus. “I like the idea of turning it into a  destination kind of thing where you bring all these visitors out to places like Red Rocks. It kind of traps you into the incredible vibe of this city.”

Bridget Kearney, acoustic bassist for headlining band Lake Street Dive, said shuttling out-of-towners up for a night at Red Rocks is a little like shuttling bees to honey.

“The beauty here is unparalleled,” she said. “It’s spectacular. You have to see it to believe it. Putting a place to play music in the midst of all this beauty is almost like gilding the lily.”

Harold Abrams SeriesFest

Denver native Harold Abrams makes his winning pitch.

Harold Abrams, a Denver native and two-time Emmy Award winning TV producer for VH1, MTV and PBS, applied for and scored one of the six coveted Pitch-A-Thon slots. Two months ago, he was assigned both a consultant and mentor to help him hone the 5-minute oral presentation he made to industry execs this week.

Abrams, a graduate of Machebeuf High School and the University of Colorado Boulder, is developing a five-year episodic series called  “Grave Affairs,” centered on a disgraced funeral planner who returns home to reclaim her dominance in the sometimes funny death industry.

Abrams describes the days following the “Pitch-A-Thon” as not so much people feeling each other out as “smelling each other out.” On Tuesday, he was named the “Pitch-A-Thon” winner – which should bring a few more sniffs his way – and help keep his dream alive.

The jury statement read in part: “A quirky, behind-the-scenes look at a Black mortuary as seen from the point of view of a middle-aged woman trying to reconstruct a satisfying life? Yes, please!”

‘Awayy,’ written and directed by Aqsa Altaf and John X Carey, was named Best Independent Pilot at Seriesfest.

The best dramatic pilot winner was a sci-fi story called “Awayy.” It’s about a small-town waitress who is on her way to New York City to pursue a life in the theater when a solar flare disrupts all airline travel and causes her mind to become unstuck in time. The jury said: “’Awayy’ is a gorgeous sci-fi exploration of fate that’s grounded in reality … and bound for greatness.”

The best comedy pilot was “Mt. Mystic Rangers,” a mockumentary series that follows a unit of misfit park rangers at a mysterious place called Mt. Mystic State Park.

Meanwhile, several members of the local theater community were hired to perform a live reading of a proposed pilot called  “Mount Wilson” from inside the Gates Planetarium. The story centers on scientists debating the vastness of the universe in 1924. The reading was directed by The Catamounts founder Amanda Berg Wilson with a cast that included Matthew Blood-Smyth, Sam Gilstrap, Josh Hartwell, Anastasia Davidson, Chris Kendall and Simone St. John alongside a few New Yorkers including Whitaker, the “Black Panther” actor who was also in town repping a pilot he helped write called “5180.”

In the end, the point of SeriesFest is to move developing independent content from the page to the screen. And to promote Denver’s place in the entertainment ecology. And, one can dream, eventually move Denver from a city where deals are made to a place where shows get made.

SeriesFest Red Rocks

The band Lake Street Dive headlined SeriesFest at Red Rocks.

“SeriesFest refocuses attention on Denver as a potential film and TV hub,” Ross Ham said. “I just know that everything we all have been wanting to happen for Denver is going to show up one day – and it’s going to be, in large part, because of SeriesFest.”

Tony Award nominations

Nominations for the Tony Awards honoring Broadway’s best were announced this week, with “A Strange Loop” leading the way with 11. Featured prominently in that ensemble is Coronado High School grad Jason Veasey of Colorado Springs. Littleton High alum Colin Cunliffe plays Elmer Woods in Best Musical nominee “Paradise Square,” which also includes University of Northern Colorado grad Aisha Jackson as a standby.

New Broncos QB on Apple TV

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Russell Wilson is coming to ‘Freatness Code.’

New Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson will be featured in the second season of Apple TV’s Emmy Award-winning unscripted sports-doc series “Greatness Code,” with each episode examining a pivotal moment that defined an athlete’s career. All seven episodes of the show, described as “a stylized hybrid of live action and visual effects,” drop Friday (May 13), with Wilson’s second in the playlist. Other subjects include four-time NBA MVP Lebron James; six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, U.S. women’s national soccer team co-captain Alex Morgan, eight-time Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt; five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky and 11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater…

Free shows at Levitt Pavilion begin

Levitt Pavilion’s free summer concert series, which will include a record 51 shows, has announced a 2022 lineup that includes Central City Opera with Grand Orquestra Navarre (May 15), DJ Mark Farina (June 3), Calexico (June 11), Slim Cessna’s Auto Club (Aug. 21) and the North Mississippi All-Stars (Aug. 31). Levitt says it is, in essence, giving away $36 million in free concerts this summer …

Briefly …

It’s a good time to be a “Fiddler on the Roof” fan. Today through Sunday (May 15), the Sie FilmCenter is screening a new restoration of Norman Jewison’s 1971 classic to go along with the new behind-the-scenes documentary “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” which opens Friday (May 13) for a limited run at the Sie …

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One of the exhibits that features art within washing machines during a media tour of Meow Wolf Convergence Station on Tuesday, September 14, 2021 in Downtown Denver. Convergence Station opens to the public on September 17. (Photo by Katie Klann/Denver Gazette)

Meow Wolf has announced that its next two freakout portals will be in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. Between Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Denver’s Convergence Station (which opened in September), Meow Wolf has attracted 3 million visitors to its three locations …

The 12-year-old Denver Silent Film Festival returns May 20-22 to the Sturm Family Auditorium inside Denver Botanic Gardens. This year’s theme is “We Need to Laugh,” and will feature 11 short and feature-length comedies from the silent film era …

The Littleton Town Hall Arts Center has announced a 2022-23 theater season of  “Xanadu,” “Newsies,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” and “Memphis,” as well as a concert version of Sondheim’s “Putting it Together” and limited runs of the play “Master Class” and “In The Trenches: A Parenting Musical.” …

The Broadway League, based in New York City, has given its 2022 Outstanding Achievement in Road Marketing Award to Jeff Hovorka, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Denver Center’s Broadway and Cabaret Divisions. The 28-year DCPA veteran is also a graduate of Regis High School …

The disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company continues its metro tour of the musical “The Spitfire Grill” with performances May 13-15 at the Arvada Center.

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