Telluride 2012: The Oscar Season Begins

Telluride Film Festival Main Street 2012 - H 2012
Pamela Gentile

Telluride Film Festival Main Street 2012 - H 2012

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- During the next few days, high up in the Rocky Mountains, an eager and select group of film lovers will be the first to see such movies as Hyde Park on Hudson, starring Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Frances Ha, the latest star turn from Greta Gerwig; and a sneak peak of Ben Affleck's Argo.

It's all happening at the 39th Telluride Film Festival, which got under way Friday morning with the traditional program review and patron brunch, during which attendees were briefed by organizers about this year's film lineup, then had the opportunity to meet and mingle with many of the directors and stars who made those films possible. Affleck and Gerwig were on hand, as were such other stars as Gael Garcia Bernal and Laura Dern and directors including Noah Baumbach and Alexander Payne.

Telluride, in recent years, has come to be regarded in industry circles as the unofficial kickoff to the awards season. It is not as exotic or chichi as Cannes or Venice, it doesn't attract as many stars or festivalgoers as Toronto, and it doesn't happen in as vibrant a city as New York. But there is something unmistakably special and important about the four-day festival in this beautiful mining-turned-mountain resort town in Colorado, a modern-day Shangri-La with a population of just 2,300, and that is the taste of the attendees.

Only the most passionate film buffs and serious film journalists attend Telluride. That is because they are the only people willing to spend the hefty sum required to get here (it's in the middle of nowhere, or at least a long way from any major city) and to see the films (everyone -- even journalists, who usually are granted complimentary press credentials by other fests -- must buy an expensive pass to ever see the inside of a theater). The titles aren't even revealed until the day before the festival begins. And Telluride is famous for its "TBA" screenings, which often wind up being high-profile films. Last year's Friday afternoon offered the world premiere of Payne's eventual best picture Oscar nominee The Descendants; this year's it's the unofficial world premiere of Affleck's Argo.

Consequently, it is an ideal testing ground for a film: If a film plays well here, it's a good indication it will play well elsewhere on the awards circuit, and it often leads to a higher-profile rollout. Three of the past four best picture Oscar winners -- Slumdog MillionaireThe King's Speech and The Artist -- played Telluride. If a film does not play well here (as happened last year with Butter), a studio can quietly begin to reposition it as a project that is not intended to compete for awards since there really aren't enough people here to crucify it beyond repair.

The festival, realizing its value to studios, has become increasingly selective over the years about which films it accepts. These days, it won't even consider a film that previously has screened in North America. (For instance, I have heard that the highly anticipated The Master was disqualified after its writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson organized a few test screenings of it around the country this summer.) Films that already have premiered overseas, however, still are welcomed. (This is why many hot titles from Berlin, Cannes and Venice make their first stateside appearances here.)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The King Speech (2010) screened in Telluride first. It's also where Lost in Translation (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Juno (2007) began their Oscar marches. And, this year, it's where Affleck's Argo (Warner Bros.), Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson (Focus Features), Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa (still seeking a distributor) and Baumbach's Frances Ha (also still seeking a distributor), among many others, hope to begin theirs. Three Cannes award winners -- Michael Haneke’s Amour, Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone and Pablo Larrain's No, all of which are being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics -- will make their stateside bow at the fest, as well.

But the appeal of this event is not just the great film offerings -- which, in addition to potential Oscar fare, include revival and outdoor screenings -- but also the charming locale, especially for the city dwellers who descend upon it once a year. The cobblestone streets, the snow-topped mountains, the street-corner cafes, the slow-moving mountain gondola and the dearth of speeding and honking cars collectively create the sense of an idyllic, old-fashioned 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 -- 1.67 miles high, to be precise.

Some people have been coming to the festival for decades, rarely if ever missing a year -- including Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, who will be signing her new Philip Kaufman biography and leading three panel discussions this week; SPC studio chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who always come to Telluride with a few films and usually leave with a few more; and The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Todd McCarthy, who will be moderating one of this year's festival tributes. Other regulars include Oscar-nominated actress Laura Linney, who met her husband here in 2007 when she was promoting The Savages and he was a volunteer and who has been here each of the past eight years except last year, when she was working on the film that she will be promoting here this year.

Then there are the newcomers who are won over by their first trip. Last year, that group included me -- and George Clooney, who was here for The Descendants. Clooney came to town without a bodyguard or entourage, gamely chatted with all comers at the patron brunch, walked over to the premiere screening of his film like everyone else and then visited restaurants and bars at night. Very few locals bothered him for autographs or photos -- their neighbors include Tom Cruise, Ralph Lauren and Oprah Winfrey, so it takes a lot to impress them -- and most of the out-of-towners were too busy seeing or writing about films to even notice. Clooney later told me that he hadn't felt so free and at ease in public in years and that he wants to come back when he doesn't have a film to promote, just so that he can see films and hang out.

Can you blame him?