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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
September 3, 2013 10:12 AM
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How the Telluride Film Festival Cheats the System

By programming more than one survival movie at the Telluride Film Festival this year, a decision that give rise to a panel on the theme and a couple of appropriate trend pieces, the festival programmers had the right audience in mind. It takes about a day for most people to adjust to the thin air in this sleepy Colorado mountain town, which in most cases amounts to a third of the entire Labor Day Weekend festival. Even with an extra day added this year, Telluride still came and went in a rush of movies and events that its close-knit cabal of attending journalists are still attempting to sort through in the few days remaining before the Toronto International Film Festival dominates the headlines.

Though most agreed that this was an exceptional year for the festival and an apt celebration of its 40th anniversary, Telluride remains difficult to categorize partly because there's such little time to take it all in each year. The survival movies spoke to the festival experience in more ways than one: From Robert Redford trapped on a boat in "All Is Lost" to George Clooney and Sandra Bullock lost in space in "Gravity," Mia Wasikowska wandering the Australian desert landscape in "Tracks" and Chiwetel Ejiofor battling his way through plantation life in "12 Years a Slave," the minimalist narratives of marooned souls that gained attention at Telluride this year belonged together. Jointly, they provide an apt way of looking at Telluride's unique status as a kind lone wolf in the otherwise tightly constructed festival circuit. Though Telluride keeps its schedule a secret until the first day and refuses to refer to any of its news films as "premieres," its co-directors still must adhere to various politics involving which films they can screen in the small window of time before Toronto. They certainly play a savvy game of negotiation, dealing with studios that allow them to quietly program sneak previews and pepper the lineup with potential Oscar contenders.

But Telluride still manages to maintain a different sort of air from its larger brethren. A sort of cheat sheet to fall season specialty releases, Telluride has the feeling of an off-the-grid clubhouse with a cozy vibe that sits just fine with the midwestern clientele. Despite the industry bigwigs in attendance, a large portion of Telluride's audiences wouldn't know a Sony Pictures Classics awards contender from a Fox Searchlight one, but they still get a chance to see both. Even those dashing around Telluride in a frenzied attempt to see as much new product as possible tend to appreciate the contrast with the usual domination of insider chatter that dominates other festivals. How does Telluride do it? The programmers themselves may not always know, but here are a few observations about the characteristics that give Telluride its distinct character.

It looks easy, but it's actually really hard. The festival estimated that over 4,000 people attended the festival this year. In addition to local passholders, that figure includes an international guest list with filmmakers flying to town from countries ranging from France (the director and stars of "Blue is the Warmest Color") to Tehran ("The Past" director Asgar Farhadi). The festival relied on help from around 600 volunteers to screen 27 new features, six film revivals and a handful of tributes across nine screens. It had to coordinate the schedules for directors such as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and the Coen brothers in addition to visiting actors like Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbinder, who rubbed shoulders with the likes of very different Telluride participants, including archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai and magicians Penn and Teller. It wasn't uncommon to run into Telluride staffers at the center of town and get the sense that they barely had time to figure out how things were going. But despite the scale of the operation, the character of the town is so friendly and relaxed that it manages a striking juxtaposition to other high profile film events overwhelmed by red carpet glamor.

Oscar campaigns can launch without really launching. In recent years, studios have taken a few potential Oscar contenders to Telluride as a kind of tryout period to determine if the movies work as well as they hope. The scale of Telluride is small enough that if reaction to a film is mixed, a studio still has a window to retool its campaign. The trial period lends a rather unorthodox, contained vibe to the Oscar prognostication (which naturally invites derision from the countless individuals not at the festival irked by premature buzz). Case in point: Fox Searchlight unveiled Steve McQueen's lyrical period drama "12 Years a Slave" in a sneak preview slot, and while reactions to the movie led to instant acclaim and hope for a successful fall season, the Saturday night party for the film was a low key affair at the festival's casual Sheridan bar. A jet-lagged McQueen chatted with a handful of guests before quietly excusing himself while Michael Fassbender danced the night away and hardly a single camera was thrust in his face.

Nearby, distributor Sony Pictures Classics hosted a dinner for its awards season hopefuls. Farhadi spoke quietly with guests about his plans to direct an opera in Rome and write an English language feature, showing no pressure to deliver soundbites that would help position "The Past" for a prize. At the same table, inventor Tim Jenison showed off slides from his painting experiment, which features at the center of Penn and Teller's well-received documentary "Tim's Vermeer." But Jenison was hardly in the throes of a marketing push. The anticipation of further events along the line that would raise the profiles for all of these movies made it seem as though all these guests were merely participating in a prologue to the big events just around the corner.

Still, you can ignore the Oscar bait. Audiences with no professional agenda could soak in restored prints of films by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Chris Marker alongside shorts programs and public conversations. Some attendees committed vast sections of their schedules to undertakings like the five-hour Polish miniseries "Burning Bush" (which has no U.S. network lined up) and multiple installments of Werner Herzog's "Death Row" program. If you wanted to shut out the new work altogether, Telluride offered a purely cinephile-friendly experience.

Telluride actively resists being a marketplace. While distributors and publicists make their way to the festival, it's virtually impossible for the short event to make room for huge industry dealings. That's not to say that the big companies don't try: Festival staffers were heard grousing about studio entourages that swept into town this year and attempted to change the atmosphere (as well as text during screenings of their own movies, considered the worst sin among Telluride regulars). Nevertheless, only one movie landed a deal during the festival -- "Tracks," which had already premiered in Venice -- and several other new films like the moving prison drama "Starred Up" probably won't find homes for several weeks or more, after they circulate more widely. That means they got to screen at Telluride for one chief reason above all else: Because people wanted to see them, not buy them. As long as the festival keeps that intention on top, its legacy is secure.


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