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Bill Pence, Original Telluride Co-Founder, Has Died at 82

Pence, who also formerly served as director of film at Dartmouth College, died December 6 after an illness.

Bill & Stella Pence with Ken Burns (left) at the Telluride Film Festival on the day that they announced their departure from the Festival in 2006. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Bill & Stella Pence with Ken Burns (right) at the Telluride Film Festival on the day that they announced their departure from the Festival in 2006.

Eugene Hernandez

Updated: Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, in a phone interview with IndieWire, said the following about Bill Pence: “[I’ve been going to Telluride] since 1978. Bill Pence was one of the pioneers of repertory cinema. That led to the festival. He had a chain of theaters all across the west, he’d bicycle repertory prints. He’d find archive program stuff no one had heard about for years, the [other theaters] would follow his lead, his festival turned into the ultimate repertory theater in his wild dreams. They put this thing together. Always at Telluride you’d see the best prints out of the archives, it was one of the treats of going there. Bill curated that; one of the roots of the festival was Bill Pence’s love of films and older cinema.

“I remember one year that stands out: Bill had original prints of Hitchcock movies that nobody could get and be able to watch in theaters on the screen. A moment in time. Another memory I have of Bill, he introduced many films, some people it looked like you can do that easily, some people not. I did see him alone preparing with intensity, ready to go into the Sheridan Opera House for the opening night movie, repeating his speech, going in there, wooing the crowd with the magic he was about to present. It was something he took pride in. It took a lot of courage to be able to continue to do that.

“One of the big moments of one festival was Napoleon out in the park: three screens, three projectors, Abel Gance was there.

“Bill Pence programmed the best movies he could find. He created an experience for our lives that we would never have ever again. Unbelievable moments: where else would you run into Cab Calloway or Jimmy Stewart or sit next to Lillian Gish on an airplane?”

Director Paul Schrader wrote in an email to IndieWire: “Although Tom Luddy is most associated with the Telluride Film Festival, it was Bill Pence (and wife Stella) who literally started the ‘SHOW’ at the Sheridan Opera House which became the TFF. Bill was every inch Tom’s equal in adventurous programming and left a footprint everywhere he went.”

Earlier: Bill Pence, the film curator and theater operator best known as one of the founders of Telluride Film Festival, died December 6 after a long illness, IndieWire has confirmed. He was 82.

Pence co-founded Telluride, held annually in the Colorado town during Labor Day weekend, in 1974, along with his wife Stella Pence, James Card, and Tom Luddy. He served as the co-director and president of the National Film Preserve, which runs the annual festival. Pence additionally created the Santa Fe Film Festival with his wife Stella in 1980, and the two ran it for three years.

“Bill Pence is an almost mythical figure in the landscape of the Telluride Film Festival,” said Julie Huntsinger, executive director of the Telluride Film Festival, in a statement shared with IndieWire. “An incredibly generous founder but any single description isn’t enough. A showman, a visionary, a great leader, a film buff — all of these things and more. But most importantly of all, Bill was a great person. Kind and smart and a wonderful father and husband. We continue to be inspired by his example and vow to continue the important work of film appreciation.”

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pence’s first jobs were as an usher at movie theaters around the city. In the ’50s, he attended Carnegie Mellon University (then known as Carnegie Tech), where he ran the student film society. After several years in the U.S. Air Force after graduation, he began his career in film preservation, restoration, and distribution by establishing Film Arts Enterprises in 1961.

Pence opened his first theater in 1965 and quickly acquired over a dozen art and commercial movie theaters through the companies The Flick, Rocky Mountain Cinemas, and The Picture Show Corporation, owning them through the ’80s. Pence focused on the distribution of specialized, independent, and foreign films in non-metropolitan college towns. Notable theaters he operated included the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, the Egyptian in Park City, the Princess in Crested Butte, the Chief in Steamboat Springs, and the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride.

From 1965 to 1978, Pence worked as the vice president of film distribution company Janus Films. While at the distributor, he focused on building the company’s library of classic films, which eventually served as the initial foundation for home video curator the Criterion Collection. He also helped to establish “Janus Film Festivals,” showings of the companies’ library of titles that became popular on college campuses.

In 1983, Pence joined Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center of the Arts as the director of the film program. While there, he led the Dartmouth Film Society and developed a program where Dartmouth students assisted in curating Telluride’s short film program and participated in the festival’s student symposium.

Pence is survived by his wife Stella, daughters Zazie and Lara, and his four grandchildren. Pence was included in Turner Classic Movies’ year-end In Memoriam tribute. You can watch that below.

Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.

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