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When Telluride Film Festival co-founders Bill and Stella Pence announced their retirement at the conclusion of last year’s event, the news came in true Telluride fashion: as a surprise. The Pences, who co-founded the festival in 1974 with Tom Luddy and the late James Card, had been planning their exit for years but opted to share their decision only with Luddy, his new co-director Gary Meyer and a few other close friends.
Secrecy is an integral part of the Telluride ethos. Ever since 1976, when news of Jeanne Moreau’s cancellation overshadowed appearances by King Vidor and Jack Nicholson, Telluride’s organizers have refused to divulge each year’s lineup until opening day. Ticket holders who arrive in the former mining town high in the Colorado Rockies have no idea what films they’re about to see — no matter how much speculation they might read in the press.
The policy hasn’t interfered with Telluride’s evolution as a major stop on the North American festival circuit. The event, which opens Friday and runs through Labor Day, has become known as the place to see high-profile prestige pictures before they land in Toronto for that city’s 10-day film festival, which opens just days later (this year Sept. 6). With its selective lineup, secluded location and well-connected audience, Telluride might as well be Shangri-La for cineastes.
“It’s an endless array of wonderful things,” said Errol Morris, who sits on the festival’s council of advisers and served as guest director in 1988. “It’s really sad to me when I can’t go. Telluride is interesting, it’s fun, there’s always something very odd and unusual that happens there. And you get to see amazing movies.”
Luddy and Meyer said they have no intention of tinkering with a formula that is so widely beloved. Meyer first attended the festival in 1975, and in recent years, he has served as one of Telluride’s resident curators, scouting films and offering programming input on a volunteer basis. Like the Pences, who owned a chain of art house theaters, and Luddy, a former head of the Pacific Film Archive, Meyer comes from an exhibition background, which Luddy said adds to Telluride’s populist ethos.
“We all have a similar background in showing movies to people,” he said. “We like putting on a good show. We like making sure that the audience experience is a good one.”
Despite Telluride’s egalitarian airs, the festival is by no means easy to attend. Just getting there requires a six-hour drive from Denver or a panic-inducing small-plane flight. Accommodations in the tiny town are not easy to come by, and passes, which run a relatively pricey $680, invariably sell out months in advance.
At least everyone’s in the same boat. There are no media passes, no industry screenings. Except for holders of the $3,500 Patron Pass, everyone waits in the same lines. And, of course, everyone is equally in the dark. The festival is famous as a place where movie stars and movie buffs connect as equals. One of Luddy’s fondest memories is watching Peter O’Toole ride his bicycle through Telluride’s streets “like he was anybody else.”
The remoteness that once made Telluride a popular hiding place for outlaws now serves to separate the dilettantes from the true believers. “To make the effort to come on blind faith, not knowing what the program is, and to go to the trouble of paying for air tickets and hotels, you have to really be passionate about film and want to eat, sleep and talk film for 24 hours a day while you’re there,” Luddy said.
“Nobody ends up there thinking, ‘Maybe I should go. I kind of think I have to go,’ ” added Telluride’s newly installed managing director Julie Huntsinger. “You have to intend to get there.”
Huntsinger began her career working as Luddy’s assistant at American Zoetrope in the 1990s, and more recently, had served as production supervisor and an associate producer on films including 2005’s “Racing Stripes” and 2003’s “Beyond Borders.” It was her breadth of knowledge and her superior people skills that made her right for the job, Luddy said.
“She knows how to make people happy when they don’t think they want to be happy and get people where they need to be even though they really don’t think they want to be there. We said, ‘That’s what we need for the film festival.’ The film festival is, in a way, like a film production.”
Huntsinger echoed the comparison. “In overseeing the staff, bringing in the talent, it’s very similar,” she said. “I’m overseeing all these crazy itineraries and personalities and egos, and the staff is very similar in that you have these really overeducated, overtalented, amazing personalities. They’re all willing to roll up their sleeves and to say, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ “
Although Telluride’s audience is small, those who complete the pilgrimage include some of the most devoted and influential cinephiles in the world, which makes the festival especially attractive to exhibitors. “Because it’s over the Labor Day weekend, and because they don’t reveal what’s in the festival beforehand, the people that go are obsessed with movies, and they tend to be opinionmakers who are key to spreading the word-of-mouth,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who last year screened the company’s German import “The Lives of Others,” which went on to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film.
“It was like the screening heard ’round the world,” Barker recalled, “and it was at 9 a.m. on a Sunday.”
At the Toronto festival four days later, publicists were already touting the Telluride audience’s rapturous response. “It’s consistently been the festival that has been known to discover these great films,” Barker said. “It doesn’t have a market or the distraction of the paparazzi. It has a publicity all its own.”
Oddly enough, some insiders chalk up part of Telluride’s appeal to its relative brevity. Compared with the long march of Toronto, Telluride’s four-day weekend is a walk in the park. “You have no idea how wonderful that is,” Edith Kramer, a former director of the Pacific Film Archives who is serving as the festival’s guest director this year, said with a laugh. “There’s something really refreshing about throwing yourself into it for a few days rather than a week or two.”
Kramer, not surprisingly, is sworn to secrecy as to the contents of her six programs, but she will say that she was asked to dedicate one program to a living filmmaker working outside of the mainstream who could be invited to the festival. She was asked to stage “a kind of a tribute” to a person she knows “very well, although I’d better not say any more or I might give it away.” And she was asked to steer clear of works the festival had shown in the past 10 years — she said she decided to go one better and select only works that had never been shown at Telluride.
Telluride’s organizers said they’re focused on staying the course, with no major changes on the horizon. The Pences will be present in spirit, if not in person; Bill programmed the short films this year, but come the end of this week, he and Stella will be on a cruise ship in Alaska.
“We wanted them to be there,” Luddy said, “but they didn’t want us calling on them if we got in trouble. They wanted to see us sink or swim on our own.”
This year’s festival will feature at least one new component: a 72-seat theater called the Back Lot, which will be dedicated to documentaries about film and filmmaking. Meyer said the lineup likely will include eight features and “a couple of interesting shorts,” beginning Friday morning and screening throughout the festival.
Which eight features? Which interesting shorts? That, like the rest of Telluride’s lineup, will have to wait until Friday. Holding the reins of the festival’s programming for the first time, Meyer dropped no hints, but he promises to put on a heck of a show. “We know everybody can’t like every film,” he said, “but we want to make sure that the experience, collectively, is a good one.”
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