Telluride has been buzzing since last night’s first screening of Steve McQueen‘s excellent slavery drama, 12 Years A Slave. One site which shall remain nameless was so overcome that the writer already just about declared the Oscar race over and done. “Guess we don’t have to go to Toronto now,” said a publicist here with another contender. One blogger stopped me on the street today after I saw the film and asked, “So do you agree with us (bloggers) the actor race is done?” he said in referring to star Chewitel Ejiofor‘s towering and dignified performance as the slave Solomon Northup, who lived to tell his harrowing tale and write a book about it in 1853. As I said yesterday, hyperbole is a big part of any festival like this and intelligent moviegoers are so thirsty for Oscar-quality adult movie fare they might have a tendency to go overboard with praise. But it’s a disservice to a very fine but challenging film like 12 Years A Slave to build up such high expectations no movie could possibly live up to it.

As I exited the packed 650-seat Herzog Theatre, I ran into Fox Searchlight co-President Nancy Utley, who was there gauging reaction to her film, which they open in LA and NY on October 18 and then roll out slowly. She agreed it is a film that should be “discovered” but, obviously happy with the ecstatic reaction so far at its first two screenings, added that this film needs special handling. “It’s a movie that will depend on critical reaction and awards play to really tell people that despite tough subject matter it’s a film they must see,” she said.

I don’t think she has to worry too much about that based on the buzz on the street. The Telluride crowd I saw it with, largely white and upscale, approved — giving the cast and filmmakers a standing ovation when they appeared for the post-Q&A. It’s definitely the one being talked about most and, typical of small festivals like Telluride, has created a rush to see it here at every subsequent showing. It’s not for those with weak stomachs, with extremely realistic and wrenching scenes of violence against the slaves, particularly one scene in which the uber-evil plantation owner (portrayed flawlessly by Michael Fassbender) against the slave girl Patsey (stunningly played by Kenya-born newcomer and Yale Drama School grad Lupita Nyong’o).

GM
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Yes, it's sooooo the new Oscar bait. That's why slavery films/stories have been done over and over...
MGM
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Get a grip, Jay Smack. That's not what was meant. What was meant was that McQueen tackled...
SIR
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"Slavery, black maids and butlers" are the "new sure-fire Oscar bait?" Jay Smack, seriously? As opposed to...

There’s no question this will be a player in the 2013 awards sweepstakes. There would have to be some amazing performances out there to deny nominations to Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender. The film and McQueen, along with John Ridley, who adapted the book will also certainly figure. But Searchlight has to get audiences to come first. The producing team includes a new collaboration between Plan B’s Brad Pitt and DeDe Gardner and River Road’s Bill Pohlad along with four others. They were all last nominated for the equally challenging The Tree Of Life two years ago, which Searchlight also nurtured into theatres.

Pitt, who also has a relatively small supporting role, was part of a post-screening panel that included the three stars, McQueen and Gardner. The UK-born McQueen said he had wanted to do a film that dealt with slavery and set about finding the appropriate material when he learned of this book he knew nothing about. “It was like reading Anne Frank’s diary, only a hundred years earlier,” he said. “It was incredible. No one had heard of it and it was a film I wanted to make.”

Pitt said they wondered why there were not many films on slavery, especially when there are so many on the Holocaust. “It took a Brit to do it,” he said. “I just want to say I am so humbled and so proud to be a part of it. This is why I wanted to get into films, films like this that I watch and have such an emotionally transformative experience I find it hard to speak afterwards.” He also praised the performances.

The Telluride fest goers in attendance definitely seemed to agree with that. We are going to be hearing about 12 Years A Slave throughout awards season. Just let it breathe a little.