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September 20, 1999 2:00 AM
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FESTIVAL: Short Filmmaker Feels Big at Telluride

FESTIVAL: Short Filmmaker Feels Big at Telluride

by David Agosto




August 12th: I get the call. My short film, "Big Canyon," will screen in three weeks at the Telluride Film Festival. I'm informed that the program is kept secret until the day before the festival. I ask if I can tell my friends. The reply: "Close friends."


I'm in. Now I'll get to see why a half-dozen indie filmmakers have told me that Telluride was their best festival experience. Secret program means relief from the usual festival promotion chores. No postcards to be sent, no advance press duties and no bugging producers to attend. Just ship the print and show up in Telluride. Where exactly is Telluride, Colorado?


September 2nd: I take the Telluride Festival charter from LAX to Montrose, Colorado. It's pricey but the alternative -- fly to Denver and drive seven hours up twisted mountain roads -- costs in other ways. From boarding area to car rental desk, the charter turns out to be the friendliest flight I've ever taken. Most passengers are "industry," but the talk is "vacation causal."


On the plane, I count nine babies. The CAA agent waxes poetic on fatherhood. I never expected a film festival to have a family vibe. I end up at the luggage carousel next to Roger Ebert. Plugging your film made easy. I slip outside for a long overdue cigarette and David Lynch is the only one using the smokers' bench. What do you say to David Lynch?

I wind the rental car ninety minutes up the Uncompahgre River canyon. As two-lane blacktop SR 145 narrows into Colorado Avenue, Telluride's main drag, the festival's most photographed star comes into focus: framed by big sky and snow capped peaks, Bridal Veil Falls plunges 365 feet to form the headwaters of the San Miguel River.


I'd been warned about this 10,000 feet of altitude business. Sure enough, I find myself perpetually winded and feeling like I'm two beers into a six pack. Laughs come easier. I forget to shave. I'm inclined to sit and have long conversations with perfect strangers. I wear shorts and hiking boots. The Telluride experience is kicking in.


September 3rd: The festival gets going with an outdoor brunch for the filmmakers and patrons at a mountainside ranch. It's a sweet experience; slide into a weather-beaten Adirondack chair, drink a mimosa, dine on smoked salmon and peruse the once secret Telluride Film Festival program for the first time.


As a short film director at a prestigious festival, I came in feeling like the ballboy for the Yankees -- you're on the field but... The Telluride festival staff changed that. First off, they put me up in town, (Telluride hotel rooms go for $200 plus a night and are all but impossible to find during the festival) and gave me a full festival pass ($1,250 to the paying customers), and invitations to at least one gathering or party per day. They provided the shorts directors with a "sherpa" who guided our oxygen starved brains through the thin air, made sure we got to events and saw to it that we sat next to cinema All-Stars like the very friendly Werner Herzog.


Even though Telluride and Sundance share mountain village atmospheres, they couldn't be more different. Cell phones are virtually inactive. Nobody clogs the sidewalk hawking his or her undistributed feature while wearing a chicken suit.


All shorts directors know what it's like to have your film listing buried in the back of the program. They're also familiar with 10 AM, satellite venue screenings. Not at Telluride. The shorts programs' details were smack in the middle of the festival guide. Lots of stills too. Our screening time was optimum and the venue was a great old theater right on main street.


My distributor, AtomFilms, provided me with attractive press kits and the Telluride staff gladly places them in attending journalists' hands. Kim Roush, the Director of Development and Communications, hosts an informal press gathering in the San Miguel County Courthouse. Filmmakers are invited, allowing me a pressure-free venue to arrange interviews.


Having already signed with AtomFilms, I don't have the usual pressure of trying to attract a distributor. Other than handing out an occasional palm card, I schmooze very little. Film-lover conversation is the local currency. Exchanging business cards and talking up future projects is an afterthought. I run into the same producers and agents again and again and make more friends than deals.


Next, my producer Mike Genett and I do a radio interview at the KOTO, Telluride's local station. We tell some stories and spin a song from our film, The Waco Brothers' "Dollar Dress." We take the special opportunity to plug Bloodshot Records, the Chicago label that let us use the song.


September 4th: The shorts program is hosted by Godfrey Reggio, director of "Koyaanisqatsi." He preps the audience with a smart intro on the value of short films. The program surprises me with two things I've never seen before. They stop between the films and bring the director to the lectern to introduce the film. Better yet, a festival rep sits next to you with a radio to the projection booth in case you need to give instructions on volume and framing. Red carpet service all the way.

The programming is a good mix. Except for their length, no two films have anything in common. Screening with films from Africa, South America and Australia lets each stand on unique legs. The moderator encourages the audience to meet and greet the directors outside after the final film for Q&A. The subsequent conversations are relaxed and thought provoking since the traditional audience/performer arrangement is absent. Shared laughs punctuated by, "You wanna grab a coffee?" replaces the usual nerves and microphone feedback.


On the final day, I blow off watching a morning film in favor of coffee and a gondola ride. By the time I get back down the festival's Labor Day picnic is in full swing. The whole affair feels like a big old family reunion. I plop down on a hay bale and watch Roger Ebert leisurely videotape the outing with a camcorder. The Telluride experience defined.


["Big Canyon" is David Agosto's fourth short film. He currently resides in Los Angeles where he is developing a feature film version of "Big Canyon.]

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