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.

My friend Alex Billington of FirstShowing has a theory that most of the good film festivals are hard to get to. Alex’s theory is that to see the good films first, you really need to work for it. To attend Sundance, you need to fly into Salt Lake City and drive an hour into the Park City. To attend the Cannes Film Festival, you have to fly into Paris and take a six hour train ride into Cannes.

Unless you take the expensive plane that Hollywood studio types charter directly into the small small airport in Montrose and take a one hour shuttle into Telluride, then you’re flying into Denver, taking a very small plane into a very small airport in Durango (this is the type of airport where if you show up less than 30 minutes before your flight, there is a hand written note on the counter telling you that the desk attendant is busy loading the bags into the plane.). And from Durango, it’s still a two hour drive into Telluride. Even then, you’re probably not staying downtown — it’s too expensive. The three years I’ve attended Telluride, I’ve stayed in a more affordable ski hotel over the mountain, which means we have to take a 15 minute gondola ride into the city each morning and night.

Of course, Alex’s theory (which even he’ll admit) discounts great festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest, both which are easily accessible by air flight.

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 the secluded location and expensive film pass. A Telluride pass costs around $700 for the three and a half days of the festival, and they don’t offer press passes to anyone. If you are lucky enough to see four movies a day then you’re paying an average of around $45 a ticket (and you thought the 3D/MAX prices at your local multiplex were high. And of course, this doesn’t take into account the money spent on travel and accommodations.

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.

Not only is it pricey and hard to get to, but you’re gambling at the same time. You see, unlike most other film festivals which announce their line-ups months in advance (partly to stimulate attendance/ticket sales and get mainstream attention), Telluride doesn’t reveal their line-up until 24 hours before the festival begins. You can see the line-up that was announced yesterday here.

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.

Three years ago Telluride secretly screened Jason Reitman’s Juno before it’s scheduled Toronto premiere. Two years ago Danny Boyle secretly screened Slumdog Millionaire in the high school auditorium. Last year, Reitman returned with Up in the Air, days before the scheduled TIFF premiere.

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 visits to Toronto and Fantastic Fest in Austin) 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, 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.

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. 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 (especially when we hit Austin). I also hope to include a bunch of photos in my blogs to capture the locations, people, and experience (some of you may have seen my first experiments in photoblogging during Cannes). I’m also going to be conducting a few interviews with some of the filmmakers behind the films, and giving you more insight into their creation.

Today is my second day on a trip which will last 30 days in total. I will be covering the Telluride Film Festival from September 3rd to September 6th, traveling to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival which begins Thursday September 9th and runs until the 19th. And from there I’ll be traveling to Austin Texas for Fantastic Fest (September 23rd to the 30th). Please 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.

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