“What is the point of the Telluride Film Festival?” asked a colleague over dinner in the Colorado Rockies last weekend.
It’s an understandable question about a festival that combines several characteristics into a unique whole: Founded 41 years ago by film producer Tom Luddy, the festival offers the quaint vibe of a regional gathering hosted by someone with first-rate VIP access. Stars, industry veterans and other tastemakers assemble alongside casual movie viewers from around the globe for a packed weekend. The program blends resurrected cinephile wonders — this year included screenings of Robert Altman’s “California Split” and Joseph Losey’s rarely-seen remake of Fritz Lang’s “M” — with a number of new titles, ranging from established festival hits to high profile fall releases, including several potential Oscar contenders.
Starting last Friday — a day after its program was announced — and concluding on Monday, Telluride came and went with the ease of a cool mountain breeze, but its reverberations continue. In its gentle, unassuming way, the festival provides one of the most significant launchpads for new films in the world. And the recent lineup is a perfect illustration why.
The Shadow of Toronto
Telluride offers a little something for everyone, including the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive Canadian event, set to launch this Thursday, generated unflattering press earlier this year when it began insisting that movies screening at Telluride could not play at Toronto during its vetted opening weekend.
Yet it was at Telluride that Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux hobnobbed with Belgian filmmaking duo the Dardenne brothers (whose “Two Days, One Night” could garner a foreign film nomination) and the top dogs at IFC Films. The company hosted a dinner also attended by Ethan Hawke, whose sweet-natured documentary portrait of an aging pianist “Seymour: An Introduction” was warmly received at the festival.
At another dinner nearby hosted by Sony Pictures Classics, legendary British director Mike Leigh (in town for his gorgeous Timothy Spall-starring painter biopic “Mr. Turner”) sat opposite legendary German director Wim Wenders (who directed the documentary “The Salt of the Earth”) as the two traded compliments about each other’s recent achievements; a few seats down, the Argentine director Damián Szifrón eagerly accepted praise for his zany satire “Wild Tales.” At another table, Channing Tatum sat opposite his “Foxcatcher” star Steve Carrell, who praised the directorial debut of his former “Daily Show” colleague Jon Stewart, “Rosewater.”
It’s hard to imagine such a tightknit crowd of name talent finding time to relax during the hustle and bustle of Toronto, which isn’t to discredit the value of Telluride’s feisty bigger sibling up north. Like it or not, the festivals compliment each other, and the sooner they can make peace with that reality the better for everyone involved. Telluride is the on-ramp to Toronto, and a handy means of sifting through its daunting range of options. (Not to mention that A-listers like Carrell probably won’t have time to see “Rosewater” in Toronto.)
Whereas Toronto contains nearly 300 new movies, Telluride offers a far more manageable 25. But Toronto’s programmers, some of whom were irked last year when “12 Years a Slave” landed without warning at Telluride and gathered buzz ahead of its Canadian date, clearly don’t feel so amicable about maintaining a symbiotic relationship.
“It is the elephant in the room,” admitted Telluride co-director Julie Huntsinger during a press briefing on the festival’s first day. “We wish everyone the best next week.”
Luddy suggested that the pressure on filmmakers and distributors to choose over prominent exposure at Telluride or Toronto unnecessarily muddies the waters. (It can also create confusion: Documentarian Nick Broomfield happily agreed to screen his latest effort, “Tales From the Grim Sleeper,” at Telluride ahead of Toronto without realizing the new mandate; as a result, Toronto moved his screening out of its opening weekend slot.)
If anything, Telluride offers a boost in advance of Toronto by providing some early buzz among a limited crowd of influencers. Rather than stealing Toronto’s thunder, Telluride assembles the clouds. “You can see we have a selection of films from Searchlight, Weinstein, Roadside, Wild Bunch, Sony Classics,” Luddy said. “They have always been giving us films. I’m sorry that they’re being punished for it.”
Nevertheless, by the end of the weekend, many of the festival’s guests weren’t talking about major known quantities. Instead, the big discovery was Yann Demange’s tense war drama “’71” — another Toronto entry — which initially won acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival but made its first North American appearance over the weekend. Leigh, “Rosewater” star Gael Garcia Bernal and others were heard at various gatherings over the weekend gushing about the movie, which Roadside Attractions and Black Label Media will release in the coming months. While it next screens at Toronto and the New York Film Festival, it was clear that “’71” received a unique showcase at Telluride: Not only a first-rate historical thriller, but a tremendously sophisticated achievement from a first-time filmmaker.
A similar goal was achieved to a somewhat lesser degree by “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” a compelling suspense effort from another first-timer, Andrea Di Stefano. The Italian director’s unique portrait of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar — embodied with eerie understatement by Benicio Del Toro — focuses on his impact on a young Canadian (Josh Hutcherson in a credibly frantic turn) who dates the steely-eyed leader’s niece. At the late night sneak peek screening of “Escobar” over the weekend, Di Stefano acknowledged the presence of Frances Ford Coppola, who was in town for the 35th anniversary screening of “Apocalypse Now,” and later word got around that Coppola loved the movie. For distributor Radius-TWC, this under-the-radar effort absolutely gained a boost in advance of its Toronto booking.
Only at Telluride could smaller films garner the attention of such legends with ease. At the Werner Herzog Cinema, one could regularly find no less than Herzog himself mulling about the audience at various screenings. He moderated a fascinating Q&A with documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer, whose “The Act of Killing” followup “The Look of Silence” finds an Indonesian man confronting the perpetrators of his country’s genocide with stunning results. Later, Herzog was among the audience members singled out by director Ramin Bahrani before the screening of “99 Homes,” his probing, angry drama about the 2008 housing crisis starring Michael Shannon as a scheming housing broker who takes advantage of a struggling lower class family man played by Andrew Garfield. While both movies premiered a few days beforehand in Venice, Telluride kickstarted literally kickstarted the North American conversations that are bound to continue up north.
Oh Yeah, the Oscars
No matter how much Telluride claims to chase after quality, there’s always a subtext to this unassuming environment, which for several years has provided the first clear indication of Oscar season players. Still, Huntsinger characterized the latest edition as a “quiet year” and claimed that awards potential was a non-issue for her and Luddy. “We ignore it completely,” she said. “The second we get concerned about that, we lose our focus, and nobody would come here.”
Faced with audible groans in the room, she clarified. “This is not a disingenuous comment,” she added. “We sincerely want to show you the best. Whatever happens as a consequence of that is good for everybody.” She added that among the 6,000 attendees at the festival, many of the regulars don’t think in Oscar terms — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t subconsciously influencing the race anyway.
“I will say that it’s a mutually beneficial situation,” she said. “That is absolutely acknowledged. To the extent that somebody sees us as a great way to show new work, it’s good…but you start it with a whisper and it becomes a shout elsewhere.” Thus: Toronto.
So Who’s in the Race?
Ultimately, neither Telluride nor Toronto hold all the cards in this equation. The Oscar game is a blessing and a curse for the festival circuit, which is at the mercy of various studio agendas. This year, potential Oscar season heavy-hitters included Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s playful backstage drama “Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)” with Michael Keaton in the lead. Distributor Fox Searchlight took the movie to Venice and Telluride, and it found acclaim in both places. But the movie won’t play Toronto, instead taking up the closing night slot at the New York Film Festival next month. Despite the raves out of Venice and Telluride, “Birdman” — a very strange, idiosyncratic satire of contemporary show business — won’t sit well with everyone. Some may find its use of ironic overstatement appealing for the same reason others are bound to complain. It’s a movie that inspires intense reactions, and so its early life has been managed to elicit limited response (allowing the hyperbolic raves to stand out) in the ramp-up to its broader reception.
Other Oscar contenders will follow the more conventional Telluride-Toronto route for obvious reasons. These include Benedict Cumberbatch as British scientist Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” and Reese Witherspoon as a despondent hiker in “Wild.” Both movies are fairly traditional narrative experiences based around the appeal of their lead performances. They were joined by titles that had already gained some momentum earlier in the year at Cannes, notably Bennett Miller’s Carrell-Tatum vehicle “Foxcatcher.” Telluride offered confirmation that they’re all in the race; Toronto will seal the deal.
In fact, the specter of awards campaigns lurk everywhere in Telluride. As our dinner came to a close, we hashed out a purpose for Telluride and ventured into the dark streets, the shadows of the mountain landscape looming above us in every direction. A few feet away, we could hear the rapturous crowd reception for Quincy Jones, performing in the wake of an outdoor screening of “Keep on Keepin’ On,” Alan Hicks’ documentary about Jones mentor Clark Terry. Radius hopes to enter it into the best documentary race — a bid to repeat last year’s success with another music documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom.”
Further down the road, we passed Telluride regular Errol Morris and arrived at a dense house party filled with awards hopefuls like Tommy Lee Jones, the director of the unorthodox western “The Homesman,” who mingled with “Foxcatcher” director Miller, Oppenheimer and others. The chatter of the crowd blended into a roar of possibilities. Which voices would remain prominent in the coming months? Even a quiet year at Telluride speaks volumes about the future.