Inside the Telluride Film Festival That Would Have Been

Telluride Film Festival 2019 - Getty - H 2020
Paul Best/Getty Images

The now canceled fall festival programmed 29 films, and tributes to Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins and Chloé Zhao, before a worsening pandemic drove executive director Julie Huntsinger to decide, "I don't want us to be part of a problem."

After Telluride Film Festival organizers had assembled a plan to go forward this year with thousands of COVID-19 tests, new HVAC systems and socially distanced screenings, a phone call on Sunday, July 12, inspired executive director Julie Huntsinger to reconsider and cancel the annual Labor Day event.

Coronavirus numbers were spiking in several states including California, Arizona and Texas and a local festival board member, Joseph Steinberg, called Huntsinger to warn her that the politicized debate over mask wearing was playing out in the Rocky Mountain tourist town amid a contentious election in Colorado’s third congressional district.

"It just felt like, 'I hear you, universe,' " Huntsinger says. "I was anguishing a lot over, 'Will I make the right decision?' One day, it felt, even if we're only 200 people watching movies outside for four days, that's enough. Then that weekend, it was so clear and so clean, that I will not jeopardize anyone, and I don't want us to be part of a problem."

Telluride announced it was canceling two days later, even as its fellow fall festivals — Venice, Toronto and New York — all plan to go forward in some fashion. Instead, Telluride will host a drive-in screening in Los Angeles on Sept. 11 for the Chloé Zhao Searchlight movie Nomadland, which was to have shown at the festival as part of a tribute to the filmmaker. Zhao and Nomadland star Frances McDormand will both attend the drive-in, and at least one additional potential event for another film that would have premiered in the lineup is also in the works.

The festival — which was scheduled to take place over Labor Day weekend, September 3-7, 2020 — would have screened 29 new narrative and documentary feature films and 23 shorts, with films from 25 countries.

Other films that were to have screened at Telluride this year include Francis Lee’s romantic drama Ammonite, a Neon release starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, as part of a tribute to Winslet, and Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman (Sony Pictures Classics), as part of a tribute to Hopkins.

The festival was to be heavy this year on documentaries, including Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés's Stacey Abrams voting rights film for Amazon, All In: The Fight for Democracy; Dawn Porter’s portrait of White House photographer Pete Souza, The Way I See It (Focus Features) and Sam Pollard’s exploration of the U.S. government’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., MLK/FBI.

Announcing the program for what would have been its 47th annual festival, Huntsinger says, is a way for her and festival co-founder and artistic director Tom Luddy to serve the curatorial function they typically do in the film world, highlighting a tight list of new features they consider the year’s best. In part because of Telluride’s timing in the calendar, the festival has evolved to become one of the most reliable Oscar bellwethers and has proven a valuable launchpad for eventual best picture winners like Moonlight, Birdman and Argo.

"There's a pretty good trust with our audience and the filmmaking community, that because our lineup is so small, it means that there's been a great amount of care," Huntsinger says. "This year, this is what we think you should look at. Use it, don't use it, but I know that some people will."

As the pandemic worsened this spring and early summer, Huntsinger and Luddy still felt that Telluride could proceed, albeit with changes, including an additional day to enable more socially distanced screenings. Instead of relying on the festival’s usually social line system — where in a normal year passholders queue up beside regulars like Ken Burns or Laura Linney— they had planned to institute a reservation system to ensure proper spacing inside the venues.

They scrapped the festival’s smallest venue, the 65-seat Telluride Library, deeming it impossible to plan a responsible screening there, and ditched their guest director program, which requires more face-to-face time with the audience. They added a new outdoor screening venue, in Telluride’s Town Park, and planned to hold a socially distant dance party for one of the programmed films there, Frank Marshall’s documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, with six-foot spaced circles marked on the ground for boogying.

"At first, I think people might have thought we were a little crazy to keep pressing forward," Huntsinger says. "But if you look at what's happened in other countries, we could have been on that same track, and we should have, and that's what I anticipated."

Despite the uncertainty, most distributors were game, Huntsinger says, though it’s noteworthy that typical Telluride stalwart Netflix is not represented on this lineup, nor any other fall festival’s. "There was one distributor that said, 'We're looking at Telluride as a reset, that this is when we can emerge a bit and go about the rest of what it is we do this time of year.'"

As the pandemic wore on, the normally competitive fall film festivals began to strategize together. "When you're sitting there, it's almost like, 'Oh, my God, we're all naked on an iceberg. Now what do we do?' Huntsinger says. "And so, you turn to the people around you and say, 'Okay, I think we can do better if we just talk to each other, even if it's for moral support.'"

While Toronto and New York will host hybrid festivals, combining in-person and virtual events, a digital version of Telluride was never in the cards, Huntsinger says. "I know other festivals can do this and will pull it off great, and it's very beneficial to their individual communities," Huntsinger says. "But what we do is so about human intimacy. For us, it's that alchemy. No oxygen, lots of people together, having the conversations at midnight in the gondola. There's no way that we would've even tried to replicate what can happen."

Unlike most other film festivals, Telluride has minimal branding and sponsorship opportunities, and is unusually dependent on income from its passholders and donors. When Telluride canceled in July, the festival offered passholders refunds, but most opted to roll their passes over to next year, Huntsinger says. "It means we have the income for this year, but we won't next year," she says. "So I'll probably need to do some kind of clever and targeted fundraising to make up for a deficit next year. Hopefully, people will understand." After the last financial downturn, Huntsinger says, Telluride made a concerted effort to save. "We just put away money and saved for a rainy day, and this is the rainy day."

The pandemic has brought some upsides, Huntsinger says, including reminding her and her film industry peers to keep their work in perspective. "It’s allowed all of us to see that we don't do brain surgery," Huntsinger says. "We aren't saving lives. We are not there on the front lines. So if you have to move a date, you move a date. The world will not stop rotating on its axis, it will keep going."

Despite the film industry’s current dire state, with theaters in much of the U.S. shuttered, Huntsinger is optimistic that the businesses will rebound after COVID. "Somebody published something that I didn't like, saying that independent film is dead, and I think that's garbage," Huntsinger says. "We will not let that happen. What happened in the 1920s after the pandemic of 1918 is people went back to movie-going. People are going to go back massively, and we're going to have the roaring '20s all over again."

Here is the full lineup of feature films that would have played at the 2020 Telluride Film Festival, with suggestions, supplied by Telluride, of where else audiences can find them:

After Love (dir. Aleem Khan, U.K., 89 min)

All In: The Fight For Democracy (dir. Liz Garbus, Lisa Cortés, USA, 102 min)

How to watch: In select theaters Sept. 9; available to stream on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 18.

The Alpinist (dir. Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen, USA, 92 min)

How to watch: Follow @redbulldocs for screening updates

Ammonite (dir. Francis Lee, U.K., 117 min)

How to watch: Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19)

Andrey Tarkovsky. A Cinema Prayer (dir. Andrey A. Tarkovsky, Italy-Russian Federation-Sweden, 97 min)

Apples (dir. Christos Nikou, Greece-Poland-Slovenia, 90 min)

How to watch: Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12)

The Automat (dir. Lisa Hurwitz, USA, 79 min)

How to watch: follow at  for screening updates

The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (dir. Frank Marshall, USA, 111 min)

Charlatan (dir. Agnieszka Holland, Czech Republic-Ireland-Poland-Slovakia, 118 min)

How to watch: screening at the now in-progress Transilvania International Film Festival

Concrete Cowboy (dir. Ricky Staub, USA, 111 min)

How to watch: Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19)

Dear Mr. Brody (dir. Keith Maitland, USA, 97 min)

The Duke (dir. Roger Michell, U.K., 96 min)

How to watch: Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12), theatrical release Spring 2021

The Father (dir. Florian Zeller, U.K.-France, 97 min)

How to watch: Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19)

Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (dir. Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, U.K.-USA, 97 min)

How to watch: Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19), Stream on Apple+ (date TBD)

Ibrahim (dir. Samir Guesmi, France, 84 min)

How to watch: French release Dec. 9

Mainstream (dir. Gia Coppola, USA, 94 min)

How to watch: Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12)

Mandibules (dir. Quentin Dupieux, France, 77 min)

How to watch: Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12), French release Dec. 2

MLK/FBI (dir. Sam Pollard, USA, 104 min)

How to watch: Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19)

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (dir. Kristina Lindström, Kristian Petri, Sweden, 93 min)

Never Gonna Snow Again (dir. Ma?gorzata Szumowska, co-dir. Micha? Englert, Poland-Germany, 113 min)

How to watch: Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12)

Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao, USA, 108 min)

How to watch: Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12), Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19), Telluride From Los Angeles Drive-In Screening (Sept. 11), New York Film Festival (Sept. 25-Oct. 11), theatrical release Fall 2020

Notturno (dir. Gianfranco Rosi, Italy-France-Germany, 100 min)

How to watch: Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12), Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19)

Pray Away (dir. Kristine Stolakis, USA, 101 min)

There is No Evil (dir. Mohammad Rasoulof, Germany-Iran, 152 min)

How to watch: theatrical and virtual release at by end of 2020

To the Moon (dir. Tadhg O’Sullivan, Ireland, 76 min)

How to watch: Venice Days Film Festival (Sept. 2-12)

Torn (dir. Max Lowe, USA, 92 min)

The Truffle Hunters (dir. Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw, Italy-USA-Greece, 84 min)

Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation (dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland, USA, 86 min)

The Way I See It (dir. Dawn Porter, USA, 100 min)