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The first festival was held in 1974 in the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, Colorado. It was started by the Telluride Council for the Arts and Humanities; Bill and his wife, Stella; Tom Luddy; and James Card. It continues to be operated annually by the National Film Preserve.
“Bill Pence is an almost mythical figure in the landscape of the Telluride Film Festival,” Julie Huntsinger, executive director of Telluride Film Festival, said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “An incredibly generous founder, but any single description isn’t enough. A showman, a visionary, a great leader, a film buff — all of these things and more.
“But most importantly of all, Bill was a great person. Kind and smart and a wonderful father and husband. We continue to be inspired by his example and vow to continue the important work of film appreciation.”
A native of Minneapolis, Pence immersed himself in film since his first job, where he was an usher in the city’s movies palaces. In college, when he ran the student film society, his interest was piqued when he saw Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) for the first time. He started his career as a promoter, where he would present a regular film program to students, calling them “festivals.”
After graduation, Pence enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served for several years. Following his release, he worked as a vp at New York-based Janus Films, focusing on growing its new and classic collection, which would serve as the basis for the Criterion Collection.
Pence moved to Denver and met Stella, and that’s when the Telluride festival started to come to life, with the help of friend and film historian Card and Pacific Archive director Luddy. For the next three decades, they worked to expand the event and change the movie business.
Bill and Stella retired from the festival in 2006.
They also created and ran the Santa Fe Film Festival for three years starting in 1980.
Following their Telluride exit, the Pences were recruited to help organize the TCM Classic Film Festival, held each year in Hollywood. “Our festival owes them both so much,” TCM general manager Pola Changnon told THR.
The collection of film prints that Pence gathered during his 50-year career is now at the Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard Film Archive.
In addition to his wife, survivors include daughters Zazie and Lara and four grandchildren.
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