Telluride peaks like 'Slumdog' hard to predict

Colorado festival is adjusting to awards expectations

With the afterglow of "Slumdog Millionaire's" stunning Oscar run, the Telluride Film Festival launches its 36th iteration Friday. So just how much pressure and attention is on the unassuming four-day fest?

The triumphant campaign for Danny Boyle's best picture winner was triggered by its last-minute inclusion in Telluride last year. And with award-winning films such as "Juno" (2007), "The Last King of Scotland" (2006), "Walk the Line" (2005) and "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) launched from the Colorado mountain aerie over the past few years, the "Slumdog" slam dunk has only increased speculation about the festival's magic touch.

"If you go back through the history of the festival, there have been films almost every year that came out of nowhere," said Gary Meyer, who serves as festival director with Tom Luddy. "There's now going to be an expectation that we will have to deal with, of people saying, 'Oh! Is that film going to win an Academy Award for best picture?' The answer will be: 'We don't know. We hope a whole bunch of them do, right?' But we're not looking for Oscar bait per se."

Awards predictions may be a perennially fruitless endeavor, especially as early as September, but one of the wild cards at this year's Telluride could be Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air."

The film is not included in the Telluride lineup, which, following the fest's tradition of keeping mum until the last minute, was released Thursday.

But "Air," which Paramount plans to release in December, is rumored to show up in an unannounced preview slot. That should provide both the high glamour factor, with star George Clooney turning in a performance pulling award whispers behind it, if Reitman's previous two films, "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno," are any indication.

With its follow-up Toronto screening, "Air" will look to trace the path of "Juno," which bounced from Telluride to Toronto on its way to $227 million in global boxoffice, four Oscar nominations and one win for screenwriter Diablo Cody.

While previewing some of the Toronto action, Telluride also is sharing a few titles with the simultaneous Venice Film Festival, but Meyer is not concerned about distinguishing Telluride from the two other bigger fests.

"We don't call anything a premiere," Meyer said. "Telluride's sort of a sneak preview, because nobody knows what's going to be there until they get there. And then it's great if they go to Toronto and win the audience award and find a much broader audience. So if we kind of set things up a bit, that's wonderful."

Arriving in Telluride on the heels of their Venice debuts are Viggo Mortensen's "The Road," adapted by writer Joe Penhall and director John Hillcoat from the post-apocalyptic Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel, and Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," which reconfigures the notorious 1992 Abel Ferrara-Harvey Keitel narrative as an opportunity for Nicolas Cage to play a really bad cop with the unpredictable passion of his early work.

The Weinstein Co. will release "Road" next month, while First Look Studios will distribute "Bad Lieutenant" domestically in November.

Films still seeking distribution include Todd Solondz's "Life During Wartime," a sequel of sorts to his 1998 film "Happiness," and Michael Hoffman's "The Last Station," which features James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti and Christopher Plummer in a period story about Leo Tolstoy's last months.

Meyer and Luddy have corralled quite a few films that have already played, and generally played well, at Cannes, Sundance and/or Berlin.

Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" (Sony Pictures Classics) won Cannes' Palme d'Or, while Warwick Thornton's Australian drama "Samson & Delilah" picked up the Camera d'Or. Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" (SPC) won the Jury Grand Prize, and Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" (IFC Films) tied for the Jury Prize.

Other Cannes-premiered features with distribution that are screening include Jane Campion's "Bright Star" (Apparition), about the unconsummated love affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere" (IFC), about Ida Dalser, who tragically bore Benito Mussolini a son.

Rachid Bouchareb's "London River" and Adrian Biniez's "Gigante" (Film Movement) both debuted in Berlin, and the Lone Scherfig-Nick Hornby collaboration "An Education" (SPC) earned attention at Sundance in January for the performance of newcomer Carey Mulligan, who's already drawn some award buzz. "Education" has an Oct. 9 release date.

The biopic "Coco Before Chanel," from writer-director Anne Fontaine, has already opened in Europe ahead of SPC's stateside release this month. And the Italian documentary "Terra Madre," about the slow food movement, premiered in Berlin. Chez Panisse co-founder Alice Waters, who is the vp of Slow Food International, will be on hand in Telluride.

The lineup includes a range of tributes that run from German actress-director Margarethe von Trotta ("The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum") and artist-critic Manny Farber to actors Anouk Aimee ("La Dolce Vita") and Mortensen.

This year's guest director is Alexander Payne, the co-writer/director of "Sideways" and "About Schmidt" -- neither of which screened at Telluride. Payne delivered to festival organizers a list of 30 films he hoped to present, with the final choices including the 1952 Italian film "Le Ragazze di Piazza dio Spagna," the 1937 Leo McCarey drama "Make Way for Tomorrow," and the 1963 Japanese film "Daisan no Kagemusha: The Third Shadow Warrior," for which the fest cobbled together reels from prints in Berkeley, Calif., and Japan and wrote some of their own subtitles.

"There are going to be films that I don't think anybody at the festival will ever have a chance to see again," said Meyer of Payne's selections.

Among the rare films that will be on display is a fully restored version of Marcel L'Herbier's 1928 feature "L'Argent," which Luddy dug up while doing some research. "It is basically the Bernie Madoff story," Meyer said of the silent epic that takes on corporate capitalism's excesses.

As with most sponsor-supported artistic endeavors these days, Telluride has had to make do with fewer sponsors and a smaller investment from those who have stayed involved. For the first time, the festival planners had to dip into the reserve fund to maintain standard amenities and offerings.

Still, ticket sales are comparable to past years and, according to Meyer, the festival organizers are already fielding offers for next year from those who had to step away or cut back.

"Our responsibility is to the people coming to the festival," he said. "The pass holders have made an effort -- they are paying money, they're finding a way to get there, it's not inexpensive to stay in Telluride -- so we feel that our responsibility is to give them what they expect to get for their time and money and expectations. And we will do what we have to do to make that happen."
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