Montana’s gateway to Yellowstone has become a year-round cultural and travel destination thanks to a glorious setting, a busy arts calendar, and two guys named Redford.
In 1864, one year after he opened the Bozeman Trail into Virginia City, John Bozeman platted a town he described as “standing right in the gate of the mountains ready to swallow up all tenderfeet that would reach the territory from the east, with their golden fleeces to be taken care of.”
Bozeman had a flair for the dramatic. So does the Montana town that still bears his name. And not just for its dramatic setting at nearly 5,000 mountain-surrounded feet. The city’s résumé as a film location took off and continues in large part because of filmmakers Robert Redford and Jamie Redford.
Now in its second year, the annual BZN International Film Festival, June 6 – 9, will again feature scripted films, short subjects, and documentaries spotlighting women and the environment. Ted Turner will be back to present the Ted Turner Award, a $5,000 cash prize to the film that most inspires environmental stewardship. Submissions have poured in from as far away as India, Germany, Pakistan, Israel, Norway, and New Zealand.
The festival weekend is just the latest addition to an ever-growing cultural calendar. “School’s done, skiing’s done, opera season is over, and the rivers are full of fish, so this was a good time to bring people in,” says Beth Ann Kennedy, BZN’s artistic managing director.
The film festival is one more triumph in Bozeman’s evolution into a popular travel destination, which did not get off to an auspicious start: Red Cloud’s War in the 1860s closed the Bozeman Trail just four years after John Bozeman opened it.
BZN communication coordinator Cynthia Logan, a 30-plus-year resident of nearby Livingston, Montana, remembers when the big local news in Bozeman was getting a Costco. “But then Big Sky, now one of the largest ski resorts in America, became more built up, and the Yellowstone Club private residential community brought in people like Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake, Drew Barrymore, and others,” Logan says.
That clientele does not settle for drive-thru, and suddenly Bozeman had a bustling restaurant scene as well. Specialties of the house at popular places like Blackbird Kitchen and the Emerson Grill are local and organic Northern Italian cuisine that pairs well with a nice bottle of Sangiovese.
If there was one catalyst to the Bozeman boom, however, it was the release of Robert Redford’s 1992 coming-of-age drama A River Runs Through It. “When that opened it had a big impact on tourism,” Logan remembers.
The film was shot in Livingston, Bozeman, and Big Timber, and its memorable fly-fishing scenes were filmed in Gallatin Canyon on the Gallatin River south of the city. Even the few critics who didn’t like it gave four stars to the breathtaking scenery, captured by Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.
Suddenly fly-fishermen were filling up the Murray Hotel, where Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane once stayed, and business picked up at the angler accessory haven Montana Troutfitters.
“Frankly, I’ve had more than one person remark that they didn’t know if the attention was a blessing or not,” says Jamie Redford, who first saw Bozeman when he visited his dad on the set of A River Runs Through It.
The younger Redford returned last year at the inaugural BZN event with his film Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution, and in doing so helped to shape the future of the festival.
The original idea for the festival was to spotlight female filmmakers, but then the vision became even more fundamentally inclusive. “Jamie’s film was the first one we decided to screen, and it really spoke to me,” Beth Ann Kennedy says. “After Happening, I figured as long as we’re spotlighting women, we should also spotlight the woman in all of our lives — Mother Earth. That’s how the environmental aspect began.”
“People here love being active, but that also means being socially active, politically active, and environmentally active. That’s why they really engaged with BZN,” Kennedy says. “Here it wasn’t about the L.A. hoopla and just getting distribution for films — it was more about moving people into taking positive action.”
“Sometimes I walk into an auditorium and there are 500 people there, and sometimes there are just 50 — and usually that’s an expression of the community,” Jamie Redford says. “I was struck by the very strong turnout at the festival, and how Bozeman seemed so interested in the film and about what is happening in America. It was very rewarding.”
The natural wonders that surround the town remain irresistible. Bozeman is 90 miles from Yellowstone National Park, 50 miles from the famous Chico Hot Springs, and just 10 miles north of Hyalite Canyon (famous for its pristine waterfalls and robust wildlife).
Jamie Redford still fondly recalls a morning hike on the Drinking Horse Trail in Gallatin National Forest. “It gave you this incredible panoramic view of the surrounding area,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that anyone living in Bozeman could drive 10 minutes and a half-hour [hike] later be standing in such an amazing spot.”
Efforts are ongoing by community leaders to also showcase the town itself and convince some of Bozeman’s millions of annual visitors to stay another day or two. Indoor attractions include some expertly curated art galleries on Main Street, as well as the Gallatin History Museum, and the Museum of the Rockies on the Bozeman campus of Montana State University.
There are theater, opera, ballet, and symphony performances throughout the year, as well as Shakespeare in the Park and the annual Sweet Pea Festival of the Arts, now in its 42nd year.
As for any negative impact caused by a certain fly-fishing film? “When I was there for the festival, I saw the growth and the changes, the level of arts and culture and restaurants,” Redford says. “They’ve done a great job of balancing the old and the new, something many beautiful places have to manage. Being there is always a joy.”
Screening at BZN: The Divide
In the magazine’s second annual C&I Movie Awards earlier this year, readers gave deserved validation to veteran actor Perry King, whose directorial debut, The Divide, won him Best Actor and Best Picture honors. Shot in black and white, The Divide tells the story of a rancher fighting both the drought affecting his land and the Alzheimer’s beginning to affect his mind. Thanks to the win, King and his film have landed a special June 6 screening at the BZN International Film Festival. King is scheduled to be in attendance.
Editor’s Picks: If You Go
Bozeman has an ample number of wonderful hotels, vacation rentals, and Airbnbs. Here are a couple of favorite accommodations Bozemanites recommend.
This cool new LEED-certified Westin property sits a block away from the restaurants and shops of Main Street with an awesome view of the Bridgers. Modern and environmentally conscious, it’s got a good on-site fitness center, indoor saltwater pool, healthy food options (almond milk and a yogurt bar at breakfast), and well-equipped kitchenettes. The complimentary breakfast includes bread pudding, and the complimentary weekday happy hour showcases local beers and wines. elementbozeman.com
The newly renovated mid-century Lark shows what can happen when an innovative architectural design firm takes on a shuttered and dilapidated eyesore with a mission of making it “an urban escape for travelers” and “a representation of the local community bond.” Outside it boasts an outdoor wood-burning fireplace and open-air patio overlooking Main Street; inside, one-of-a-kind guest rooms feature artwork from Bozeman artists, pillow-top beds, and walk-in tile showers. larkbozeman.com
Photography: (Leader) courtesy BZN International Film Festival/Dan herman, courtesy BZN International Film Festival/Debra-Lynn Hook, (middle image) Courtesy BZN International Film Festival/Dan Herman, courtesy BZN International Film Festival/Debra-Lynn Hook, Courtesy Bozeman CVB
From the May/June 2019 issue.