Telluride vs. Toronto: Forced to Pick One Fest or Other, Where Will Filmmaker Loyalties Fall?

Alexander Payne Jason Reitman NoFF - H 2014
AP Images

Alexander Payne Jason Reitman NoFF - H 2014

Over the last four decades, many of the world's greatest filmmakers have unveiled their films on "the Telluride-Toronto circuit."

In other words, they sneak-screened their new films at the Telluride Film Festival, a small gathering of cineastes that has taken place every Labor Day weekend since 1973 in a remote ski resort town high in the Rocky Mountains, and then headed north of the border to the Toronto International Film Festival, which has grown into one of the largest film festivals in the world since its first installment in 1975, for an "official" North American or world premiere.

Films that were unveiled in such a manner include The Crying Game, Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech.

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But, as IndieWire's Anne Thompson first reported several days ago, the Telluride-Toronto circuit will no longer be available as an option next fall. TIFF is miffed about having some of its premieres' thunder stolen by the coverage they receive in Telluride and is now insisting that filmmakers and distributors pick one fest or the other. If they side with Telluride, their film will not even be considered for a screening during Toronto's first four days, when fest attendance and media coverage are at their height.

The decision probably won't be an easy one for many, since there are pros and cons to each fest: Telluride is widely valued by filmmakers for its highly-selective lineup and low-key vibe, while Toronto, which has a significantly larger lineup and is much more structured around red carpets and media opportunities, is widely valued by distributors as an effective launching pad for not only awards campaigns but also commercial releases.

But there are some filmmakers whose future preference -- Telluride or Toronto -- can probably be anticipated from their personal and professional histories at one event and/or the other.

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For instance, it is hard to imagine Oscar winner Alexander Payne not siding with Telluride. It is true that Sideways had its world premiere at Toronto in 2004, but after Payne's first visit to Telluride in 2009, as a guest director, he declared that he would never miss another edition of the fest and has not. He has since brought two films there that went on to great success -- the world premiere of The Descendants was the surprise opener in 2011 and Nebraska's first North American screening was there in 2013 -- and he came even when he didn't have a film to show, in 2010 and 2012 (when he was in pre-production on Nebraska), happily waiting in lines with every other passholder.

Others have relationships with Telluride that go back even further.

Documentary master Ken Burns, who has attended nearly every edition of the fest -- many with his daughter Sarah Burns, who grew up into a fine filmmaker herself and collaborated with him on Central Park Five, which had its first North American screening at Telluride -- serves on the fest's board, has taught as part of the fest's Student Symposium for a quarter-century and is so valued that when they realized they couldn't assign a venue to screening one of his longform docs for the number of hours it would require, they instead arranged for it to be screened on Telluride's local TV station so festival goers could still see it.

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Werner Herzog has also been coming to the fest since its second year, when he was feted with one of its tributes. He has missed it only once in recent years, in 2012, when he had to remain in Europe for his 70th birthday (his birthday always falls during the fest, and the fest always celebrates it), but he was back in 2013 for the dedication of the fest's newest venue, which bears his name and is nicknamed "The Zog." Among the dozens of films he has brought are Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss.

Other Telluride regulars include Herzog's close friend Errol Morris, who has been coming since 1997 with films including Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, The Fog of War, Tabloid and The Unknown Known, and David Lynch, who brought Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive. Younger auteurs who have returned multiple times, and will probably come back again, include Jacques Audiard (Self Made Hero, A Prophet, Rust and Bone), Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha) and Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave).

But Toronto certainly has its loyalists, as well. All of the top Canadian filmmakers have brought major films to the fest -- albeit often after taking them to Telluride first -- including David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers, M Butterfly, Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's Journey, Krapp's Last Tape, Where the Truth Lies, Ararat, Adoration, Chloe), Paul Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah, Third Person), Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell), Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Labor Day), Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria, Cafe de Flore, Dallas Buyers Club) and Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom, Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners). I can't imagine that the fest's organizers and the National Film Board of Canada, which has supported and/or supports most of these individuals, won't call on them to be patriotic and side with TIFF. 

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Reitman could find himself in something of a bind: he and his family are among TIFF's biggest financial backers, but both of his films that have achieved awards success -- Juno and Up in the Air -- started their runs in Telluride before heading to Toronto, and he is famously superstitious about when and where his work screens, hoping to replicate the triumphant receptions afforded Thank You for Smoking and Juno. Would he accept a TIFF screening outside of the first four days in order to take a film to Telluride, as well? Would others? It will be interesting to see.

Of course, many non-Canadians have also enjoyed major milestones at TIFF. Among those who have been back multiple times and have professed great affection for the fest -- listed only with films they brought to Toronto but not to Telluride (some had other films that played at both fests) -- are Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler); the brothers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (Blood Simple, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), who first attended 30 years ago; Brian De Palma (Femme Fatale, Passion), who said "Toronto has the best audiences in the world"; Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom, Looper); and Fernando Meirelles (Blindness, 360).

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg