Film festivals are always a bit of a bubble, but Telluride is an alternate reality. The festival reveals its lineup the day before it starts, and the local “airport” is a very generous way of describing a landing strip attached to a bar. Werner Herzog has coffee at the local bookstore, 300 people excitedly wait in line to see a Chilean thriller about a transgender waitress dealing with her dead lover’s family, and Errol Morris is the subject of more conversations than Donald Trump.
However, even in the Telluride utopia, it became clear that the love of movies is not enough to sustain the art form. Oscar buzz is no longer a luxury; it’s a lifeline.
Here of all places, it should be easy to ignore that the movies are coming off the worst summer box office in 10 years — but reality has a funny way of sneaking through the cracks. As Eric Kohn wrote in his own report from the 44th Telluride Film Festival: “This year’s Labor Day weekend gathering may have taken place under the shadow of nuclear paranoia from headlines about North Korea, but there was an apocalyptic air about the future of the movies as well.” That ominous vibe isn’t unique to 2017 — rumors of the medium’s death have circulated since its invention — but those dark clouds of doubt cast particularly disturbing shadows at a festival that’s located above them. In that light, everything seems a little more surreal than it should. Telluride has always felt magical, but never this strange.
As recently as last year, the idea that civilians would flock here to watch new films felt like the most natural thing in the world. Now, after one of the most dismal summers in Hollywood history, the sight of 650 people filing into a theater is naggingly discordant, let alone the sight of 650 people filing into a theater for an R-rated fairy tale about a horny janitor who falls in love with a merman. Not only do you remember that you’re in a bubble, but you also fear that it’s liable to pop at any moment. At previous Tellurides, I used to ask myself “who wouldn’t want to see this?” This year, the first question that came to mind was usually “who would?” Or, more to the point: “How do we convince them to?”
I came to the answer about 35 minutes into Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles,” a brutal Western that stars Christian Bale as a hate-filled cavalry officer who’s tasked with escorting a Cheyenne war chief across 1,000 miles of death. A $40 million meditation on the extent to which violence has been subsumed into the American soul, it’s one of the only name-driven titles that came to Telluride without distribution. As I pondered the movie’s prospects, I realized that I was looking at it through a very uncharacteristic lens. I wasn’t thinking about the former Batman’s box office appeal, or how relevant his character’s story is to our current political landscape. Nope, I was thinking about the film’s Oscar hopes. Is Bale’s performance too internalized for the Academy? Could cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi earn a nod for his dusty wide-screen compositions? What about Max Richter for his tremulous, wounded score?
This is, to put it mildly, not my style. I’ve always maintained that critics have a certain duty to elevate the discourse, to talk about movies as works of art, not horses in a race. That doesn’t mean I don’t vocally root for (or against) certain movies to win, just that Oscars are seldom my point of entry. At Telluride, that tends to put me in the minority.
Sure, Telluride honchos swear up and down that they never have awards in mind when they pick the program, but it’s not an accident that seven of the last eight Best Picture winners played there, or that the event has become the unofficial kickoff of the Oscar season. It’s not a coincidence that the New Mexico physician I met in line before “Lady Bird” told me that Daniela Vega should be nominated for Best Actress when I asked him what he thought of “A Fantastic Woman,” or that a (sweetly misguided) local I asked about “Battle of the Sexes” replied that it’s the frontrunner for Best Picture. It’s not an inexplicable phenomenon why every single conversation about “Darkest Hour” seemed to hinge on how Gary Oldman is overdue for recognition, or why everyone — myself included — had a hard time knowing what to make of “Downsizing” once it became clear the film won’t survive “Dunkirk.”
Of course, Hollywood and moviegoers alike always default to these suffocating taxonomies as soon as the calendar flips to September. But this year is different. This year, talking about a movie’s Oscar hopes doesn’t seem reductive; it just seems rational. I may not like it, but the fact is that Oscar nominations — or even the potential for Oscar nominations — are one of the few things that can still provoke people out of their comfort zones and into a movie theater. We have to reckon with that.
Films that score “Oscar buzz” immediately transform into something bigger than just another piece of content. At worst, they become relevant. More often, they become almost mandatory, at least for the percentage of the population who cares about such things. Oscars may not have the power to singlehandedly turn a micro-budget indie into a box office smash — if everyone who talked about “Moonlight” in terms of its awards potential actually saw the film, it wouldn’t have topped out at $27 million — but they are one of the very few remaining ways for movies to generate success and excitement.
“Hostiles” isn’t “Moonlight.” It’s dirtier and more violent than most Westerns in recent memory, and once that might have been enough to turn a tidy profit. But now, a star like Christian Bale is only as valuable as the franchise he’s fronting (“The Promise” grossed a mere $8 million against its $90 million budget when it opened last April). The film’s only hope is to be thought of as an Oscar contender, and there’s a sense that a distributor would only plunk down the asking price if it felt “Hostiles” could earn the kind of consideration that Cooper’s “Black Mass” failed to inspire.
“It doesn’t have to be Batman or the opera,” an actor told IndieWire at the fest. But, for the time being, it may have to be Batman, the opera, or the Oscars. The only silver lining here is that, as “Moonlight” helped prove, the Oscars are casting a wider net than ever before.
I probably wouldn’t have thought about any of this stuff during “Hostiles” if the film were more compelling. I didn’t spend a single moment of the utterly sublime “Lady Bird” thinking about how it positions Saoirse Ronan in the Best Actress race, or if Nick Houy’s staccato editing might wrest some attention away from Christopher Nolan’s crew. But I have to sympathize with why someone would, just as I have to appreciate why the conversation around the movie immediately crystallized around those topics.
As we turn the page on another Telluride and get ready for Toronto, the year’s best movies will inevitably be reduced to their chances of winning a trophy next March. You can continue to believe that the Academy Awards are evil, but — if you love movies, and want to see the studios continue to invest in making good ones — it may be time to recognize that the Academy Awards are a necessary evil. For me, it boils down to something I realized in the mountains, and need to take with me up to Canada: I used to roll my eyes whenever people would only talk about movies in terms of their Oscar hopes. These days, I’m just grateful whenever people are talking about movies at all.