Taken for a Telluride

As a fest's clout rises, strategizing a fall film launch becomes trickier

As the artistic director for the Venice International Film Festival, Marco Mueller prides himself on securing an impressive list of world premieres each year. To facilitate this, he often agrees to schedule pictures so that after they unspool on the Lido, they can move on to a splashy North American premiere elsewhere.

That "elsewhere" is often the Toronto International Film Festival, which overlaps with the last weekend of Venice. But Mueller has noticed a subtle shift this year.

"More and more producers have decided to make their American premiere at Telluride," he says. "Five of our competition films have to play Venice (the first weekend) because they will also play at Telluride. In the past we only had to worry about the Toronto premieres."

Mueller's concerns reflect the growing profile of the Telluride Film Festival as a viable indie launching pad -- especially for those films seeking the all-important awards buzz. The Colorado event, which unfolds Sept. 4-7, smack-dab in the middle of Venice and days before Toronto, has always been a draw for cinephiles. But the industry has taken note that the biggest festival breakout each of the past two years -- "Juno" in 2007 and "Slumdog Millionaire" last year -- both premiered at Telluride.

"Any time something works, people are going to pay attention to where it started," film publicity consultant Michele Robertson says. "So you put the microscope there and say, 'Oh, let's look at how it works and if our movie fits in.' "

As a result, Mueller says this is the first year he has been coordinating schedules with Telluride, which, unlike Venice and Toronto, does not announce its competition movies in advance. Producers and distributors also are reacting to the changing landscape.

"Telluride definitely has real cachet," says Bob Berney, the indie veteran who recently announced his new company, Apparition. "Because you're in the mountains and it's such a great atmosphere, you really do feel like you are discovering something for the first time."

But festival watchers caution that Toronto and Venice are not in danger of being upstaged. "The number of acquisition executives who actually attend (Telluride) and the people looking for product to acquire is fairly short," notes Jonathan Wolf, executive vp of the Independent Film & Television Alliance and managing director of the American Film Market. "I have never heard of business closing as a result of the Telluride screening itself."

So if Toronto remains more of a buyers' market and Venice is still the place to publicize an international release (which Fox Searchlight did with great success last year for "The Wrestler"), a strong Telluride premiere is seen as being able to generate heat heading into Toronto, thus getting a jump on all the films jockeying for attention there.

"Slumdog" rode that wave last year but "If you get into what really caused the 'Slumdog' phenomenon, it wasn't one or the other, as much as I'm sure they both would like to claim," Berney says. "It was the movie. It grabbed the audience."

Groundswell Prods. topper Michael London is an executive producer of Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!" which distributor Warner Bros. has decided to open at Venice and then Toronto. London says the choice of festival should be based on whether the movie is an acquisition target or whether the premiere is simply part of a marketing strategy. "Those have become completely different conversations, which they didn't used to be," London says.
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