Posted on Friday, August 31st, 2012 by Peter Sciretta
Note: Portions of this post are republished from an earlier blog post.
Every September, a small rustic mountain ski town in Colorado becomes host to one of the most elite film festivals in North America — The Telluride Film Festival. It’s not the most accessible film festival, and its certainly not cheap. So why do we attend the Telluride film Festival each year?
One of my good friends, Alex from FirstShowing, once came up with a theory that the best film festivals are in places that aren’t easy to get to. The idea is that they aren’t convenient to get to and that you have to spend considerable time, energy and money to partake in their treasures — you have to work for it, you have to earn it. It’s a flawed theory that totally sidesteps any of the metropolitan film festivals, most notably, the Toronto International Film Festival (but some could argue that dealing with customs is enough to qualify).
The Telluride Film Festival is a perfect example of Alex’s theory. Located in the middle of nowhere, Telluride isn’t easy to get to. Sure, they have an airport– if that’s what you call the very small runway next to the cliff surrounded by mountains. Black Swan composer Clint Mansell once told me about his turbulent experience landing at this airport, which was enough to scare me away from taking this route. To get on the tiny charter plane that flys direct from Los Angeles to the festival, I’m told you need to book six months in advance.
So to get from Los Angeles to Telluride, it’s probably easiest to fly into Durango, Colorado. Flying direct from LAX is not possible, so you’re either catching a connection in Denver or Phoenix. The second leg is usually on a small plane which holds less than 50 people. Once you get into Durango, it’s a 110 mile drive into Telluride. The windy road to Telluride runs through the mountains and can take three hours.
We stay at a ski resort outside of downtown, over the mountain. To get into downtown Telluride, we take a relaxing 20 minute Gondola ride and walk a half mile to mile to the various movie venues spread around town.
And it isn’t cheap. A festival pass will run you $780, which means that if you are lucky to cram in an average of four movies a day (first and last days are half days), you’re paying almost $50 a movie. Hotels and bed and breakfasts in town are very expensive (and hard to come by). We save money by booking a room in the previously mentioned ski mountain resort over the mountain, which is still a couple hundred bucks a night. Don’t even try to figure out the math as to how much each movie costs you after hotel and travel, I don’t even want to know.
To make things more complicated, the line-up for Telluride is a closely guarded secret which isn’t revealed until the day before the festival begins. Everyone who attends books flights, hotels, passes and car rentals without even knowing what movies will play.
And even then, most of the bigger films are hidden in TBA “Sneak Preview Screening” slots. This allows Telluride to secretly premiere films that are already set to “officially premiere” at other festivals like Venice, Toronto, New York and Fantastic Fest. Of course, you’ll never hear the word “premiere” come out of anyone’s mouths that work or program the festival. This year its rumored that Ben Affleck‘s Argo will be one of the sneak premieres.
So you’re probably asking yourself: why would anyone want to go to Telluride? Seems like a lot of effort and money to see a few films, right? Here are the reasons we make the trek to Telluride every year:
1. The Re-Discovery of Old Movies
The selections are eclectic, foreign (many of the films premiered at Cannes) and there is a large amount of classic screenings. It would be easy to attend this festival as a cinephile and see not one new movie. A lot of the classic films screened are movies not available on DVD or VHS. In some cases, the print being projected is the only one still known to be in existence.
This year’s film revivals include the rarely seen Raymond Griffiths comedy HANDS UP! (d. Clarence Badger, U.S., 1926) with live music accompaniment by Donald Sosin; I KNEW HER WELL (d. Antonio Pietrangeli, Italy, 1965) selected and introduced by film director Alexander Payne; THE MARVELOUS LIFE OF JOAN OF ARC (d. Marco de Gastyne, France, 1929) with The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; RETOUR DU FLAMME 2012, Serge Bromberg’s latest program including the newly restored Charlie Chaplin classic THE IMMIGRANT and HUNGRY HOBOS, the first screening of a lost Walt Disney Film since its 1928 premiere.
In years past I found myself torn between the new films and the revivals, usually choosing the former. This year I hope to find some time to experience some of these classics.
2. Telluride is Where The Road To The Oscars and Golden Globes Begins
In recent years, Telluride has been the unofficial first stop for many award winners and contenders. Five years ago Telluride secretly screened Jason Reitman’s Juno before it’s scheduled Toronto premiere. Four years ago Danny Boyle secretly screened Slumdog Millionaire in the high school auditorium. Three years ago, Reitman returned with Up in the Air, days before the scheduled TIFF premiere. Two years back, Fox Searchlight sneak previewed Black Swan and 127 Hours, while King’s Speech surprised everyone even though it was on the listed line-up. Last year, The Artist (which went on to win Best Picture) made its North American premiere, while Searchlight brought Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.
The award season bloggers flock to Telluride each year to get a sneak preview of what the story might look like for the next five months. Its great to experience these films early, before the hype and reviews boasting Oscar-caliber performances.
That said, this year’s line-up seems to be light on pre-fest award buzz. Many journalists in attendance are hoping that Telluride might pull out a couple surprises. Many were hoping that Paul Thomas Anderson would bring The Master to the festival, but he is absent from the announced line-up. We do know a new 70mm print of Baraka is set to screen at the festival, so the festival has ensured the capability to screen 70mm movies. If not The Master, maybe they’ll screen a 70mm print of the Baraka sequel Samsara.
3. The Discovery of New Movies, Smaller Films That Might Not Get As Much Exposure
While many of the journalists that come to Telluride are award-minded, I come to the festival more to discover new gems. A great film doesn’t need to be award-caliber.
Before I started writing about movies, before I started /Film, I was just a film fanatic. I volunteered at Sundance every year (working 8 hours a day gave you free housing and entrance into almost any movie you wanted to see). I would come back from Sundance and hold movie nights with my friends. I would screen smaller films that my friends wouldn’t normally even know about, nevermind see. Movies like Primer or Saved. I would force my friends to go to the opening night of a film at the Landmark in Cambridge (which was the indie theater of choice, but a hike from where I lived) to see films like The Puffy Chair or Garden State. Sharing these films with friends
For me, attending Telluride means being at that first screening — where the buzz begins.
Not too long before Slumdog premiered at Telluride, the film was slated to go direct to dvd. Fox Searchlight saved the movie and was initially planning to give it a very limited release. Boyle got a standing ovation following the film’s conclusion (yes, in the town’s high school auditorium). Searchlight and Boyle were both overwhelmed by the response at the screening. I remember approaching Boyle at a party later that night — and by party, I mean a little get together with about a dozen people in a bar downtown. I told him I thought Slumdog had the potential to be a huge breakout hit. While he was very grateful in his response, the look on his face read “are you crazy?”. It’s easy now to realize that Slumdog could have been the hit that it became, but without the magic of hindsight, it didn’t look like a movie that would be marketable to mainstream audiences. And in the months leading up to release, I talked about the film on this site at every opportunity.
I attend festivals like Telluride (and the upcoming longer visit to Toronto) to find movies to share with you guys and gals. This, to me, is my favorite part of this job. To find and expose films like The Wackness, The Raid, Sleepless Night, Monsters, Fish Tank and Moon to the large readership of /Film. I understand that most of you are not here to read about film festivals or small independent films. Most of you are here for the hourly news updates and coverage of sci-fi, comic book, action and genre films. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be interested in some of the small indie films I discover on these festival journeys.
4. The Atmosphere
People who don’t attend film festivals might easily confuse Sundance with Telluride as both take place in small mountain towns with movie theaters created from nothing.
Telluride’s high school auditorium is transformed into a state of the art movie theater. The small convention center is turned into a Chuck Jones-themed movie palace. Even the Elks lodge downtown is also fitted with a screen and seats. Walking around Telluride, you get the feeling these people could turn a banana into a small umbrella and put on a show…
But Telluride and Sundance are completely different monsters. Telluride is what I imagine Sundance might have been like twenty years ago. Sundance is overrun with movies starring mainstream movie stars, celebrities, paparazzi and parties, while Telluride is more about independent, foreign and documentary films. A large portion of the festival-goers at Sundance are from Hollywood (the locals call them “the people in black”, as the Los Angeles visitors are easily identifiable). Telluride, on the other hand, seems to be mostly attended by rich locals, most of whom don’t work in the film industry.
Hundreds of journalists from around the world flock to Park City to cover Sundance, while the Telluride Film Festival attracts only a dozen or so movie critics. Part of the reason might be that the festival pass is not comp’d for members of the press, and as I stated earlier, it is quite expensive.
You walk down the streets of Telluride and you’re walking next to the filmmakers and stars of the movies playing at the fest. Unlike Sundance, Cannes or Toronto, there is no divide. There are no limos escorting large entourages, and there are little to no celebrity gawking crowds or paparazzi. Everyone is there to see some great films and enjoy themselves. Its less about the business and more about the art. Telluride is a great place to experience movies.
My Plan This Year at Telluride (and the Toronto Film Festival)
Each year, I struggle to find better ways to present these findings to you guys. The industry standard is to write movie reviews for every film screened, but I feel that most of you probably aren’t interested in reading full reviews for films you know little about and probably wont have a chance to see for another year. I would rather share my first spoiler-free/light reactions than analysis.
And I doubt many of you have any interest in reading a nasty review of a film which might never even be released on DVD. Writing those type of reviews accomplishes nothing. You don’t need to be warned to avoid a film that will never even enter your radar, and it certainly doesn’t do the struggling filmmaker who created it any good. I would rather focus on the films that I think should be on your radar. Films you should look out for. And giving you an advance heads up on films that will be part of the Academy Awards battle come year end.
I’m also trying to focus more on the experience side of things, and give you guys a look into what it is like to attend these festivals. I will try to do more video blogs, alongside with other movie journalists guests like Alex of Firstshowing and Steve of Collider, among many other movie website writers. I also hope to include a bunch of photos in my blogs to capture the locations, people, and experience.
I will be covering the Telluride Film Festival for the next few days, and next week traveling to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival. lease join me on this journey of film and discovery. I can’t wait to share some of the experiences and reactions with you. This is only the beginning.