Todd McCarthy: The Screens Are Empty In Telluride

Telluride Film Festival
Pamela Gentile/Telluride

It’s time to start packing, to call around to find out what might be playing, to pull out the sweaters and a warm jacket for the first time in months and, above all, to look forward to a guaranteed long weekend of films that will all be worth seeing and that will provide a strong indication of what kind of serious movie year this will be.

Unfortunately, everyone knows the depressing answer to that question. And now, for some of us, is when the miserable truth of the matter is staring us straight in the face: the movie screens in Telluride will be empty over this Labor Day weekend for the first time in 46 years. There will be no hour-plus ride from the Montrose Airport to the host town of just 2,325 year-round residents, no dash to grab the schedule where the titles to be shown will be revealed for the first time, no agonizing scrutiny of the schedule that reminds you, once again, that there’s no way you’re going to be able to see everything you want to see, even if you luck out with some timely “to be announced” add-ons.

Telluride and I go way back, to its third year, 1976. The night before we arrived, on the Thursday before Labor Day, my girlfriend and I stayed at the one-of-a-kind Drive-In Movie Manor, on Colorado Route 160 between Alamosa and Del Norte, where they showed (and still show) movies on a big drive-in screen you can watch from your large motel room window.

Telluride itself hadn’t hit the big-time then; you could have bought one of the town’s many Victorian-era homes for a song; typical homes were going for $100,000-$140,000 in the mid-1970s, and a 3,800-square-foot “mansion” I’m familiar with sold for $246,000 in 1979. Who knew? Serious skiers were familiar with the place — the resort opened in 1972 — but it hadn’t yet become a trendy destination
per se.

Telluride Film Festival
The town of Telluride in 2001 AP Photo/Ed Andrieski/File

Then there were the venues, all of them tiny: The jewel-box Sheridan Opera House, or course, then the aptly named Nugget (still in use), the long-since demolished Community Center and Elks Park, then as now the site of outdoor evening screenings. And it was a year the festival was honoring two kings — the original King Kong as well as the veteran director King Vidor, along with a veritable king of animation, Chuck Jones, who would one day have a Telluride venue named after him. I also remember seeing, of all things, a new Disney film, Freaky Friday, with its 12-year-old star Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver had been released in March). Afterwards we hit a local bar where Martin Scorsese and some members of The Band were sitting around a table.

Given its fabulous location and the great expertise and dedication of festival directors Tom Luddy and Bill and Stella Pence (along with James Card early on), Telluride quickly became a go-to destination for serious cinephiles, who have been rewarded with nearly a half-century of extraordinary programming. I missed a number of festivals during the 1980s, as my editors at Variety short-sightedly refused to send me since Telluride never revealed the names of their films in advance and therefore couldn’t be sure it would be worth the cost. But I’ve been to every edition for last three decades and have seen the festival morph from specialized status to an event that officially kicks off the Oscar season.

For many years nothing could have been further from the minds of the festival’s creators than the Academy Awards; it would have been seen as vulgar to connect the two events, not remotely anything that was on the minds of anyone connected to Telluride, the headquarters of which were in Berkeley and, courtesy of the Pences, New Hampshire.

The Crying Game
The Crying Game Courtesy image

An early sign of changes to come appeared in 1992. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game debuted simultaneously at the Telluride and Venice film festivals. I saw it on the final day of Telluride and gave it a flat-out rave in Variety, which, combined with the highly enthusiastic audience response reportedly gave Miramax increased faith in the film. In all events, the festival gave the film a big bounce and this may have been the first time the industry became aware of Telluride as anything other than a film buff event.

An even more important year for the festival in Hollywood’s eyes was 2005, when Brokeback Mountain and Capote both premiered at Telluride; rarely, if ever, had two major “awards-season” candidates been so positioned at the festival. This is the year that forever lives in infamy for Crash having been proclaimed best picture by the Academy.

The breakthrough finally occurred in 2008, when another small “sleeper” title, Slumdog Millionaire, became the first film world premiered at Telluride to go on to win the Best Picture Oscar. For arcane behind-the-scenes reasons, Danny Boyle’s India-set film for Fox Searchlight almost didn’t get shown at Telluride, but in the event was unveiled to unsuspecting audiences at the last minute and was a smash. This encouraged Fox to move ahead with a big push which climaxed at the Academy Awards five months later.

Slumdog Millionaire
“Slumdog Millionaire” Courtesy image

Of course no one knew it at the time, but Slumdog’s triumph marked the beginning of a new and entirely unanticipated profile for Telluride as the place for producers and distributors to unveil their new “specialized division”-type titles, as well as a reputation as the lead-off event for what soon became known as “awards season.” Suddenly there were more publicists scurrying about, more Hollywood distribution executives, more critics and journalists. The festival grew, with more potentially “commercial” films on display than before, and big stars like Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep and Ben Affleck began turning up from time to time.

But Luddy and Pence were vigilant about keeping the quality and special atmosphere intact, even as new, larger screening venues were added and the crowds (and cost of attending) increased.

Not that Telluride should ever be judged by the number of Academy Award titles premiered there; nothing could have been further from the minds of the festival’s founders. But the fact remains that, over the past 12 years, 10 of the Best Picture Oscar winners have had their world premieres at Telluride: After Slumdog came The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight, The Shape of Water and last year’s Parasite. The only best picture victors during this period not to play Telluride were The Hurt Locker and Green Book.

All this may have made Telluride more expensive to attend and more in demand but, remarkably, the vibe and mostly high tenor of the place have remained.

Organizationally, what the festival pulls off is something close to a miracle, beginning with the temporary transformation of gyms and school facilities into sizable first-class cinemas. The number of silent and other vintage films may have declined a bit, but the commitment to the past and international cinema culture as a whole, as well as the future, remains firmly intact, and Telluride invariably unearths titles, old and new, that one never knew existed.

The bottom line is that Telluride has by far the highest ratio of films absolutely worth seeing than any other festival; if you can’t get into one screening, there’s always something else worth your time. Plus the fact that nearly everyone is accessible. I can only begin to recall how many eminent film figures I’ve met there by chance — on the street, in line, sitting in the next seat on the shuttle or in a cinema, café, bookshop or bar — and had memorable chats with as a result: Francis Coppola, Claudia Cardinale, Peter O’Toole, Marion Cotillard, Budd Schulberg, the Coen Brothers, Isabelle Huppert, Peter Bogdanovich, George Clooney, Carey Mulligan, Alfonso Cuarón, Volker Schlöndorff; the list goes on and on.

Of course we hope the festival returns next year to thrive once again. What the present and future hold is currently less knowable or dependable than at any time in most of our memories. Telluride chiefs Luddy and Julie Huntsinger held off as long as they could — until mid-July — before cancelling this year’s festival, and of course that was the only decision to be made. We can only hope that the planet’s most unique and richly rewarding festival can return in full form next year this time to pick up where it left off and continue to do what it does best.

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