Telluride: Fest's Jam-Packed 40th Edition Kicks Off 2013-2014 Awards Season (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst, who is on the ground at the festival in the Rockies, previews the 40th edition and explains its significance to the larger awards season.
Pamela Gentile

TELLURIDE, CO. -- On Wednesday, Hollywood breathed a collective gasp at the realization that, yes, it's already that time of year again: the awards season. The Telluride Film Festival, the first stop on the six-month-long trek to the Oscars, kicked off in Colorado -- a day earlier than usual -- with a concert to commemorate its 40th edition. The main attraction for most festivalgoers, however -- the films themselves -- will debut on Thursday afternoon and continue through Monday. And the excitement and anticipation for them couldn't be greater.

Every Labor Day long weekend, this small mining-turned-skiing village (pop. 2,300), located 1.67 miles above sea-level in the Rocky Mountains, is inundated with filmmakers, publicists and journalists who come to screen and/or see the films that everyone else will only get to see down the road -- at either another festival (many go on to Toronto next week or New York next month) or when they are eventually released later in the fall.

PHOTOS: Telluride Film Festival Lineup

Telluride is not as exotic or chichi as Cannes and Venice; doesn't attract as many stars or festivalgoers as Toronto, and doesn't elicit as much media coverage as New York. But it does offer something that none of the rest can: the first real sense of what the Oscar field is going to look like. Moreover, it draws only the most most passionate film buffs and pundits -- because they are the only people able and/or willing to spend the hefty sum required to get here (it's in the middle of nowhere) and to see the films (everyone, even journalists, must buy an expensive pass to ever see the inside of a theater) -- including a ton of Academy members. (The Academy is one of the fest's biggest sponsors and hosts a party here each year.) Forget autograph hounds and paparazzi -- it's much too far and expensive of a schlep!

But the quality of the Telluride's offerings makes it worth it to those who really care about film. And that is attributable largely to the fest's programmers, who have famously discerning tastes -- and demand exclusivity. In order to even be considered for inclusion, a film must not have previously screened anywhere else stateside.

This year's lineup was announced today. As always, a handful of selections previously screened at international fests. From Cannes, there is Abdellatif Kechiche's lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color (Sundance Selects), which won the Palme d'Or; Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's music-world dramedy Inside Llewyn Davis (CBS Films), which won the Grand Prix; Alexander Payne's black-and-white Nebraska (Paramount), for which Bruce Dern was named best actor and Asghar Farhadi's The Past (Sony Pictures Classics), for which Berenice Bejo was named best actress, as well as J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost (Lionsgate-Roadside Attractions), a one-man show starring Robert Redford that was the big out-of-competition hit on the Croisette. And from Venice, there is Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (Warner Bros.), a space-set drama that kicked off the competition along the Lido on Wednesday.

PHOTOS: Telluride Film Festival Highlights

But, as always, most of the films at Telluride this year will be world premieres -- even if Telluride scorns the phrase -- including Telluride regular Jason Reitman's dark drama Labor Day (Paramount), Ralph Fiennes' romantic period piece The Invisible Woman (Sony Pictures Classics), Errol Morris' Donald Rumseld doc The Unknown Known (RADiUS) and a handful of films that are still seeking domestic distribution, including Gia Coppola's Palo Alto. Several other high-profile films will be joining that list, since Telluride always fills some of the "TBA" slots on its schedule with a few previously unannounced surprises. This year, rumor has it that Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight), the cast of which includes Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, and Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners (Warner Bros.), a thriller with a star-studded cast of its own, will be among those.

Distributors looking to gin up excitement for their films and filmmakers hoping to find a distributor for theirs are generally happy to accommodate Telluride's requirements, since the fest has proven to be a terrific launching pad for films with great aspirations. Indeed, four of the last five best picture Oscar winners -- Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King's Speech (2010), The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) -- had their first North American screenings at the fest; in fact, only The Artist had previously been seen anywhere else. And Lost in Translation (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Capote (2005) and Juno (2007) also began their Oscar marches here.

It's an ideal testing ground for a film: If a film plays well here, it's a good indication that it will play well elsewhere on the awards circuit, which often leads distributors to give it a higher-profile rollout -- i.e. Venus (2006), 127 Hours (2010) and Albert Nobbs (2011). And, on the rare occasions when a film fails to go over well here, it is still early enough in the season that a distributor can still reposition expectations for it, internally and externally -- i.e. Margot at the Wedding (2007), Butter (2011) and Hyde Park on Hudson (2012).

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Plus it's just a beautiful and fun place to visit. Most of the fest's venues are located along a main street that looks like something out of an old Western; a couple of others are at the top of a nearby ski slope, reachable via a picturesque gondola ride. The surrounding cobblestone streets, snow-topped peaks, street-corner cafes and dearth of speeding and honking cars collectively create the feeling -- particularly for the city-dwellers who descend upon the fest -- that you're in another world. Everyone walks to everything here, day or night, even if they do have to exert themselves a little more and breathe a little harder because of the mile-high air. Even the stars.

My THR colleague Tim Appelo and I have split up the schedule and will be covering just about everything here over the next five days, so we hope you'll check back early and often.

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.