It’s hard enough to juggle screenings at the Telluride Film Festival, which this year packed more than three dozen features — from Oscar-season hopefuls to classic restorations — into one weekend. At the latest edition, programming was further complicated by an increasingly complex marketplace: The business continues to be defined by uncertainty about how movies find audiences beyond the rarified festival world. However, as the intimate universe of Telluride tips into the industry mayhem of the Toronto International Film Festival, there are some indications of an answer.
Telluride’s opening-day picnic, high above town with a sweeping view of the hills below, presents an egalitarian view of the Telluride scene. A shorts-clad Michael Keaton (in town for “Spotlight”) rubbed shoulders with “Carol” star Rooney Mara (also the subject of a career tribute) and her director Todd Haynes, all of whom mingled with members of the press, distributors and various patrons. Later that night, Meryl Streep entertained the media at a cocktail party for “Suffragette,” Focus Features’ entry into the awards season race.
By Saturday, competition for the best-attended gathering had begun: Telluride regulars Sony Pictures Classics hosted a soiree next to the Chuck Jones Cinema prior to the well-received screening of the company’s tense Hungarian concentration camp drama “Son of Saul,” which ran straight into the premiere of Universal’s highly anticipated “Steve Jobs,” which the studio celebrated with a posh meal afterward. At the center of town, IFC Films assembled a dinner of its own for Andrew Haigh’s delicate British drama “45 Years.”
That backroom gathering was inadvertently crashed by the Netflix team, led by head of content acquisition Ted Sarandos. The digital distributor had plans for a separate bash the following night, after the screening of its awards entry “Beasts of No Nation,” but happened to show up for a group dinner adjacent to IFC, inadvertently becoming a part of the conversation. In his usual toast to salute the guests, IFC president Jonathan Sehring acknowledged Sarandos, jokingly asking the Netflix head not to poach Haigh for one of the company’s next projects.
Sarandos, of course, had enough on his plate: In addition to “Beasts,” the well-received African war drama that next screens in Toronto, the company is touting the crowd-pleasing documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” which tracks the country’s revolutionary activism that yielded its president’s resignation in 2014. Both movies will come out in a handful of theaters while becoming available on Netflix at the same time.
Meanwhile, the company continued to ramp up plans for extended documentary programming and other original series. Whereas IFC has long invested in the VOD business, Netflix’s Telluride arrival showed the extent to which this once-untested marketplace continues to offer some players the opportunity to experiment. As if hinting at the next step, the team from Amazon Studios — which has yet to release a film — hung around watching movies and keeping their cards close to the chest. Notably, while Sony Classics usually brings a sizable lineup to Telluride in the run-up to Oscar season, this time Netflix had them beat.
Watching specialty distributors showcase their slates alongside a massive digital outlet showcased a distinct market shift. A few years ago, distributors and platforms worked in harmony, as Netflix made output deals with countless distributors to release their work after a theatrical run. Now, they compete for the same content.
Artists and Audiences
Even Telluride’s usual clientele of grey-haired non-professionals hinted at a shift in sensibilities, with one festival-goer recalling a conversation between a middle-aged couple about missing “Carol” earlier in the festival. “We’ll just catch it on VOD,” one said. This is the same demographic that traditional theatrical distributors count on as prime customers. The takeaway: If it’s not a big event movie, it falls to the digital void, where only the companies that have mastered the arena can rescue it.
With no hard public numbers to quantify the value of the digital marketplace, VOD remains a puzzle that many companies still hope to figure out. But filmmakers continue to survive, and despite anxieties that suggest otherwise, cinema thrives as an art form.
On the gondola ride up to the opening picnic, I encountered one of the few filmmakers with a short film playing at Telluride, Los Angeles-based Pippa Bianco. Her stylish and unnerving drama “Share,” the story of a young woman humiliated by the publication of her sexual antics online, was a highlight of the opening night at the Maryland Film Festival earlier this year. Since then, Bianco has landed an agent at William Morris Endeavor and taken meetings with studios. More importantly, she supports herself by directing music videos.
While many flee to television, other directors carve out whatever resources they can find, and wait for distributors to find them. At the picnic, Haynes spoke adoringly of the new film directed by his longtime pal Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff”), which she’s currently completing. He singled her out her unique ability to work exclusively on projects of her own design, “and do it consistently,” he said.
Easier said than done. One of the narrative highlights of Telluride this year was “Anomalisa,” the wondrous stop-motion psychodrama co-directed by Charlie Kaufman. Centered on the Kafkaesque experiences of a lonely motivational speaker, the movie struck many viewers as a memorable blend of magical realism and emotional appeal. Yet many buyers saw “Anomalisa” months ago and refused to meet the asking price. One prominent distributor noted that while a hip contingent would show up in droves, “those people aren’t enough.”
But smaller audiences still work for distributors that work a more limited terrain. At a Sunday cocktail event hosted by Cohen Media, the company’s president, Daniel Battsek, struck an optimistic note. His company brought four titles to Telluride, including Kent Jones’ cinephile-friendly documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and the Icelandic Oscar submission “Rams.” Battsek was planning traditional limited theatrical releases for all of his titles, relying on the enthusiasm of selective audiences in big cities ranging from New York to Chicago.
“Until somebody shows me a better way,” he said, “this one works.”
Per usual, almost every movie in the Telluride lineup makes its way to Toronto, where much larger crowds offer further opportunities to gather buzz. Beyond that world, their capacity to find audiences remains a mystery. It’s no longer a question of how you find success; it’s where, and which priorities define the bottom line.
Evidence suggests a small but fairly robust audience will continue watching original motion pictures wherever they wind up. Studios show no sign of ending their fixation on releasing movies in thousands of theaters. But as both ends of the spectrum struggle in the coming decades, companies armed with the resources to explore next steps will continue to experiment and watch the world catch up.
There was a clear sense of accomplishment at the Netflix-hosted bash on Sunday following the premiere of Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation.” The bleak wartime drama left many viewers equally unsettled and energized by the dueling performances of Idris Elba as a hardened militant and newcomer Abraham Attah as the child soldier taken under his wing.
At the party, while Elba entertained giggly female admirers and Fukunaga played foosball with his young star, Sarandos hovered near the bar and took in the scene. When asked about the multi-platform strategy, he insisted that the colorful movie would look just as great on an HD television as it did on the big screen. But he hadn’t sworn off the theatrical experience altogether. “I took my daughter to see ‘Jurassic World,'” he said. “That was great.”