History of the Spokane International Film Festival

Most local movie fans know the Spokane International Film Festival as a weeklong event popularly referred to as SpIFF. Far fewer know that Spokane’s premiere celebration of cinema began as a two-day affair in 1999.

The inaugural Spokane Northwest Film Festival was the brainchild of the local arts organization, the Contemporary Arts Alliance. Under then-director Leslie Ronald, the Alliance hired Spokane Public Radio film critic Robert Glatzer as its first artistic director and programmer. Glatzer booked four features, three of which were Canadian, and three short films, all of which were shown at The Metropolitan Performing Arts Center (now known as The Bing Crosby Theater).

In its second year, the festival managed to fill the 750-seat Met on opening night with the documentary “American Gypsy.” By 2002, the festival – now called the Spokane Northwest International Film Festival – was screening Sherman Alexie’s film “The Business of Fancydancing” at The Met, again to a packed house.

In 2004, the festival dropped the “Northwest” designation and became simply the Spokane International Film Festival. The Argentine film “Kamchatka” opened SpIFF 2004 at AMC’s River Park Square Cinemas, in a 350-seat house that provided festival fans a more intimate viewing experience. “Kamchatka” was one of nine features and documentaries booked that year, the remainder of which screened at The Met.

As the years progressed, the festival grew both in scope and size. Not only did the film selections include features, documentaries and shorts from all over the globe, but the schedule expanded from mere days to a full week and sometimes more. The Magic Lantern became the chief SpIFF theater, though special events would continue to be held at The Bing, The Garland and, on occasion, at AMC. Glatzer and festival parted ways in late 2005 and Ronald left soon after, leaving the events in younger hands. For the next few years, directors Pete Porter and Adam Boyd carried the movie baton.

The 2018 festival, which will run from Feb. 2-9 and is being directed by Chase Ogden, a professor of film at Eastern Washington University. Ogden’s tenure as director coincides with the 20th SpIFF. As has been the case with other directors over the past two decades, Ogden will be aided by teams of programmers, publicists, ticket-sellers, technicians and too many other volunteers to mention by name. Through their efforts, 2018 just might be the best SpIFF to date.

Opening Night of SpIFF 2018

Dating back to the early 20th century, Spokane has served as a shooting location for dozens of movies. One more contemporary highlight was 1985’s “Vision Quest,” a film that was celebrated during its 30th anniversary at SpIFF 2016. The event featured a special appearance by “Vision Quest” star Matthew Modine.

This year’s opening film is 1993’s “Benny & Joon,” a film production that not only brought a bevy of stars to the Lilac City, including Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn, but also provided film work for a number of Spokane residents. This charming romantic comedy will begin at 8pm Friday February 2nd. Also playing on opening night, beginning at 5:30pm, is the “Best of the Northwest Shorts Program”, a collection of celebrated short films from Washington, Idaho and Oregon. Both screenings will take place in the Bing Theater.

Closing Night of SpIFF 2018

While the opening night of SpIFF 2018 is particularly special, the closing night is equally so – if for different reasons. Beginning at 7:30pm Friday February 9th is “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey,” a documentary feature directed by Dave O’Leske.

Beckey, who died on Oct. 30 in Seattle, was a world-renowned mountain climber and author known for having scored hundreds of first ascents of North American peaks. O’Leske’s film includes both archival footage and interviews both with Beckey and with a number of the climbers who knew him.

Feature films, Documentaries and Shorts Programs

Along with the opening and closing films at the Bing, SpIFF 2018 will boast its typical quality lineup of U.S. and international films, including features, documentaries and shorts at the two-screen (33 and 100 seats, respectively) Magic Lantern Theater. Separate shorts programs will include U.S. and Canada Shorts, World Shorts and the always-popular Animation Showcase.

Special events

Following the Feb. 2nd screening of “Benny & Joon,” the annual opening-night party will be held at the Montvale Event Center, 1017 W. First Ave. Similarly, on Feb. 9th, following the screening of “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey,” the closing-night party will be held, also at the Montvale. The closing-night event includes naming of festival award winners, known as “Spiffies,” in various categories.

SpIFF: Looking to the future

Looking back at its first two decades, it’s fair to say that SpIFF has helped Spokane foster a love of cinema. It’s been an event where like-minded movie fans can come together, see a range of interesting films, meet the people who make those films and participate in often-fascinating post-screening Q&A sessions.

World cinema isn’t going away anytime soon. And as operated by its dedicated staff of volunteers, SpIFF expects to be serving a whole new generation of cinephiles for many years to come.

It’s SpIFF’s way of bringing a bit of the world back home to Spokane.


2018 Spokane International Film Festival

The Bing Theater

The Magic Lantern Theater

February 2-9, 2018

  • Full Pass / $100
  • Individual Magic Lantern Programs / $12 Buy 9 Get One Free
  • Individual Bing Programs / $13 (Best of Northwest / $8)
  • Matinee Programs (4pm and before, and as noted in program) / $10
  • Student Discount Tickets (Same Day only, with valid ID, while supply lasts) / $6 
  • STCU Discount Tickets are 50% off