Susan Wrubel: The aficionado who believes in the unifying power of cinema

March 19, 2024

Susan Wrubel: The aficionado who believes in the unifying power of cinema

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series, in honor of International Women’s Month, that shines a spotlight on the dynamic women of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.

For Susan Wrubel, the allure of cinema lies in its ability to tell universal stories that give us a glimpse into the lives of others.

“For me, it was a way into other worlds and other communities and realizing that, despite all of our differences, people are very much the same, and that what goes on on one side of the world is also reflected on another side of the world,” she said. “Culturally, there are some differences, but human nature is very much human nature.”

It’s a passion that she has applied to her role as the Executive + Artistic Director at Aspen Film for the past seven years, constantly on the hunt to bring a diversity of films from across the globe to our small mountain community.

Wrubel, who is originally from central Connecticut, studied at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. That is where she encountered a professor who introduced her to a wider world of film outside of Hollywood blockbusters and franchises.

“My love of film started in college when I took a cinema studies class, and I had this amazing professor who was revolutionary in terms of film criticism and film; so I was exposed to foreign language and arthouse films. And that’s what I fell in love with,” she said.

That love would propel her through a 30-year career as a film and entertainment executive encompassing film acquisitions, sales, development, production, marketing, and distribution.

Wrubel started her career in New York City, and after 11 years in the NY art-house world, she became VP of Acquisitions + Co-Productions for Paramount Classics in LA in 2004, but she quickly realized the Hollywood studio system wasn’t for her.

In 2010, she returned to New York, consulting for several internationally focused companies in content acquisition and aggregation as well as packaging and securing production finance for independent producers.

She served as executive producer on “Maggie’s Plan,” I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” and the Oscar-winning “Still Alice.”

Before joining Aspen Film, she worked with New York-based CinePointe Advisors, a film/television advisory group, providing strategic guidance and support to producers, financiers, and production companies on packaging, sales, distribution, and financing.

Aspen Times Arts and Entertainment Editor Sarah Girgis chatted with her about her journey through the film world, the wins and challenges of running a small non-profit, and what still excites her about the film industry.

The conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

SG: How did you land your first job in the industry?

SW: In 1993, I was living in New York and looking for a job. And a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, do you remember so and so who we went to college with? He’s working for this independent film company, and he’s got to leave, and they’re looking to hire somebody.’ So I went to the offices of what was then called October Films, which back in the day was the rival the Miramax. And I was hired as the print shipper. I moved copies of the films around the country on Thursday and made sure they got to every movie theater they needed to play in for Friday. So I learned about every art house theater in America.

I started negotiating with some of these theaters booking some of the smaller markets and doing all the marketing and advertising. I wanted to get into acquisitions, so I took a job at another even smaller film company called New Yorker Films, which was run by this amazing man Dan Talbott who owned Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and they wanted to hire me to run their theatrical division. I said, “Ok, if I can do acquisitions, too.” They said, “Okay, great.”

SG: How did you find your way to Aspen Film?

A friend of mine, came to stay with me in New York in April of 2017 and said, “Hey, do you remember this mutual friend of ours? He’s on the board of Aspen Film, and they’re going to be looking for a new executive director. Would you be interested in that job?”

And I said, “Yeah, that sounds great. I’m ready to retire to the mountains.” The rest is kind of history.

Looking back that was funny because I have never worked harder, even working for a studio. This is just different.

SG: What are your biggest wins over the past seven years?

SW: The caliber of film and programming and guests that we’ve been able to get to Aspen. The good thing is that Aspen is a name in a place where people are like oh, yes, we would love to make that work.

When I moved here, my whole life came full circle from 30 years ago because I am working with a lot of people that I used to do business with at the beginning of my career when I was doing all the distribution and marketing and advertising, the less sexy part of the film industry.

So that’s a huge win that I’ve been able to maintain these relationships and, you know, keep the caliber of what we’re presenting high for this community and pull off some special events.

SG: What are the biggest challenges?

SW: One of the most challenging things, which I’m assuming you’re gonna hear from most people, is trying to hire people. It’s the staffing, it’s the economics, it’s the housing, and I think being probably the smallest of all the non-profit arts groups here, we feel it more than most. So that’s something that we constantly struggle with is identifying and retaining great talent without paying New York salaries.

SG: I want to talk a little bit about women in positions of leadership in film. In some way, we are seeing more films by female directors, but the numbers overall across the board are abysmally low. I believe it’s still less than 15%. Has the industry evolved?

SW: I know that the numbers dictate what the numbers dictate, and you look across the board at Hollywood and that ecosystem – yes, it is still a male-dominated field. That said though, in the film world that I grew up in, I feel like women are equals and are as well-respected. I have female friends, peers, colleagues, you know, based between New York and LA, who will only work on female-oriented or, female-centric projects and have launched their own companies.

We need to continue to excel and show people that we can get as much if not more done. Working with women, it’s more of a sisterhood and collaboration; we can all help make things rise together.

SG: So there is hope?

SW: Yes. I look at this year, and I see that Celine Song got so many accolades for “Past Lives,” and Justine Triet for “Anatomy of a Fall” was also widely-celebrated. Yes, it was unfortunate about “Barbie” and the Oscars, but the general public doesn’t have an understanding of what the Oscars are all about and the fact that it is a global voting body, it’s just not us.

Barbie made so much money and became such a cultural phenomenon – Greta Gerwig is a household name and Margot Robbie is now this icon. Maybe they didn’t get the nominations, but they broke other barriers that we can’t forget about.

I do feel although it’s very tiny increments, women are making strides, and it’s really on a global level. I see it coming out of Latin America in India, in certain other countries almost more than the US.

SG: What do you see happening in the ecosystem that those of us who love film can look forward to?

SW: I love that non-English language film is having a little bit of a renaissance, and people are starting to recognize those achievements from places outside of Hollywood, films with messages are breaking through, and documentaries are kind of indistinguishable from narrative features right now; the quality of documentaries is so strong.

SG: How is film different than other mediums?

SW: Film is the one medium where we can help disseminate everybody’s messaging. It is collaborative both in how it’s made and how it’s distributed.

So many organizations here in Aspen are now coming up with film programs to help promote their messaging. We get approached a lot and especially since we acquired ISIS Theatre, people want to partner with us, which I think is beautiful. The fact that we can partner with an organization to help get their message out there, we are doing a service to an entire community.

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