Pandemic? What pandemic?
For all of us at the 48th edition of the Telluride Film Festival, which wraps up today, it was pretty much business as usual as long as we all wore masks during the movies and had proof of vaccination, plus a negative Covid test result, within 72 hours before ever hitting the Colorado Rockies town that hosts this cinematic nirvana. The annual event brings out movie lovers of all stripes, as well as Hollywood’s Oscar brigade in hopes of establishing surefire contenders (and, as I wrote yesterday, that was mission: accomplished).
With packed and in many instances completely full screenings (largest venues hold 600-plus) over the course of the festival, which was extended to run five days instead of the usual four in hopes of keeping the crowds down at the most popular films by having more showtimes, I really couldn’t tell much of a difference from the many times I have spent my Labor Day weekends covering the key fest. Of course it was very different, like everything else these days. That co-head Julie Huntsinger and her superb team pulled this off in style is a huge achievement — as well as a heartening one indicating that, with the proper precautions, life can go on with some semblance of normality.
This successful Telluride, comes simultaneously as Venice continues with not a single reported positive test case, and this weekend’s box office champ Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in theaters only and smashing Labor Day weekend attendance records, an indication audiences will come back to movie theatres if they have a reason. They certainly came back to Telluride too, and you could tell there was jubilation at experiencing movies again the way they were meant to be seen.
At the capacity-filled Jane Campion tribute, her The Power of the Dog star Benedict Cumberbatch joked before presenting her a Silver Medallion, “It is so nice to be here in Telluride at this super-spreader event.” The crowd laughed and seemed pretty secure with all the safety precautions TFF has employed, so that this year’s Telluride did not have to be the equivalent of all those unmasked and unvaccinated bikers descending again this summer on Sturgis in bright red South Dakota, a similarly tiny town that was indeed a super-spreader both last year and this year.
Telluride was of course canceled for the first time ever in 2020 out of an abundance of caution, and TFF officials were serious about following all the CDC guidelines this year, making mask wearing in its beautiful makeshift movie palaces a mandate; a rule this crowd politely followed as firmly as the TFF rule of silencing and putting away their cell phones once the lights go down (watching movies at this fest is akin to a religious experience). Outside, where the weather has been beautiful and hot, most people felt free to go maskless.
Although Hollywood has been very cautious and taking baby steps in throwing parties, receptions and premiere galas as we try to inch back to normal even as the Delta variant is still running rampant in many parts of the world, I saw no slowdown at all in terms of Telluride dinners, parties, receptions and gatherings put on by the studios and distributors touting their films playing here. If anything, there were more of them than ever, some outdoors, some indoors, and some a combination of the two. Unlike the movie mask wearing rule, once inside these events, which included lots of eating and drinking, most attendees ditched the masks.
Some studios were extra cautious. Netflix threw two dinners and a brunch for their three feature films, all of which first premiered in Venice and made their North American debuts here this weekend. The streamer also demanded any guests show proof of a negative Covid test within 48 hours of each of their soirees. Although they offered info about Telluride’s own testing center to get this accomplished (I heard for some there were waits anywhere from a half hour to three hours), Netflix was happy to supply Lucia home test kits to anyone who wanted one, and even delivered them if you asked. It took a half hour total to do in your room and was very effective. They had security stringently checking the results on your phone as you entered their events, and that went for everyone including talent. I happened to arrive at the Sunday night dinner for The Lost Daughter at the same time as director Maggie Gyllenhaal and husband Peter Sarsgaard, who has a supporting role in her behind-the-camera debut. They also had to show proof of the test before getting the green light to go upstairs to the main room of the National restaurant, which Netflix had completely taken over for the evening. This kind of safety procedure certainly made those invited feel comfortable and they all partied like it was 1999, or even 2019.
Nothing I have ever experienced in the laid-back cineaste atmosphere of Telluride prepared me for the blowout dance party that followed the dinner celebrating Gyllenhaal’s triumphant directorial debut. It seemed like all the attendees were suddenly on the packed dance floor, rocking out to “I Want to Dance With Somebody” as if they haven’t danced with anybody in two years. The DJ never took a break even into the wee hours, and the room seemed to be letting out a collective deep breath that maybe, just maybe, life as we once knew it was back. Gyllenhaal and Sarsgaard got the party started with some pretty impressive Greek dance moves (the movie is set at a Greek beachside town) and soon were joined by co-star Ed Harris (with wife Amy Madigan) and Dakota Johnson — who was in town for The Lost Daughter — among everyone else it seemed including festival co-head Huntsinger and other stars from movies in the fest who dropped by later including Cumberbatch, Jamie Dornan, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit McPhee, Simon Rex and more. It was like the past two years had never happened.
Here is a snapshot of the Telluride Film Festival social scene, by studio, circa 2021:
The lion roars again and tried to prove it in Telluride by world premiering its lilting new musical Cyrano. On Thursday night following the first screening, an Italian dinner (it was filmed in Italy) was held at Rustico and drew director Joe Wright; stars Peter Dinklage (along with wife Erica Schmidt, who wrote the script) and Haley Bennett, who stars as Roxanne; plus composers Bryce and Aaron Dessner. A big MGM contingent was there too including studio brass Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy. The film won’t open until December 31, but the studio clearly has Oscar hopes. De Luca, a staunch believer in the theatrical experience even with Amazon’s impending purchase, told me he was just so proud to see the MGM logo Leo the Lion roaring once again in front of a movie musical, the genre that ruled the golden era of MGM.
The streamer came to town with three movies, all straight from Venice. They threw an Italian dinner at Rustico (again) of course on Friday night for the very Italian Paolo Sorrentino import The Hand of God and the director, still a bit jet-lagged, was right at the center of the action anyway with one of the film’s stars Luisa Ranieri there as well. Filippo Scotti, who is so terrific as the 16-year-old star of the Naples-set coming-of-age story that closely mirrors Sorrentino’s own life, was supposed to be there too, but Sorrentino explained the young actor went to the airport from the Venice premiere to come to America with the rest of the contingent but, alas, forgot his passport. After getting back to Rome he got it and showed up Saturday, telling me someday he would like to actually move to America, maybe Hollywood. Bring your passport, Filippo.
Netflix also hosted a Sunday brunch for The Power of the Dog at the New Sheridan which allowed press access to director Campion and stars Cumberbatch, Dunst and McPhee. As well as the aforementioned The Lost Daughter bash later that night.
The other major streamer in town hosted a Saturday brunch at 221 that was competing for attention with the first Telluride screening of Spencer, but those who were there got to mingle with Cumberbatch (the guy was everywhere) who was talking up his second film at Telluride, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain; Asghar Farhadi, the two-time Oscar-winning director of Cannes winner A Hero; and director Michael Pearce, whose sci-fi hybrid drama Encounter opened the fest Thursday afternoon. His star Riz Ahmed was one of the TFF tributes this year, but he had to do it virtually as, like some others stuck in England, he could not get into the country in time.
I also talked with Matt Newman, co-head of movies for Amazon, who was raving about the upcoming end-of-year releases. He said Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos tested recently with great results, and he praised stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem’s performances as Lucy and Desi. He is also high on George Clooney’s The Tender Bar with Ben Affleck that the director shot in Boston during the pandemic.
The smart studio, a fixture in recent years at Telluride, was back and held a makeshift party on the patio at La Marmotte that become a pretty hot destination Friday night. It was celebrating two movies playing here: Mike Mills’ personal C’Mon C’Mon with Joaquin Phoenix (though Phoenix didn’t make it to Telluride) and Cannes hit Red Rocket making its North American debut. Star Simon Rex (he’s great in it) and director Sean Baker were among key creatives on board here.
The same La Marmotte patio was the setting for (yet another) Sunday brunch for the major specialty division of Universal, which world premiered Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, which quickly became a fest favorite here and next heads to its second “world premiere” at Toronto next week. Star Jamie Dornan, in his first visit to Telluride, told me his whole experience here has been “like a dream.” He didn’t want it to end, but he has to head to TIFF. When last I saw him he was still dancing the night away at the Gyllenhaal Netflix bash.
Branagh was telling me stories about the great Judi Dench, who plays the Granny in the film, and her rapport with young star Jude Hill. Also at the Focus brunch was chairman Peter Kujawski and marketing head Jason Cassidy, who was hoping things stay steady enough in Canada to make for smooth sailing for Belfast. They also are high on Venice favorite Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho, also heading to TIFF. It’s great. Also there was director Paul Schrader telling me he flew in from Venice just in time to appear at the Telluride “sneak” of The Card Counter which opens on Friday.
Nat Geo went all out at Telluride celebrating its four documentaries — The Rescue, Becoming Cousteau, Torn and Fauci — which all premiered here. They took over the Telluride Transfer Warehouse on Sunday and turned it into a lavish outdoor party in which they also gifted attendees the jacket, raincoat or sweatshirt of their choice. Among the filmmakers and real-life subjects I got a chance to talk to Richard Stanton, one of the key heroes of the Thai cave rescue who participated not only in the documentary but also as a consultant on Ron Howard’s upcoming theatrical feature about the rescue, Thirteen Lives. He told me he spent about two and a half months in Australia working with Viggo Mortensen, who portrays him in that film. Nat Geo execs Chris Albert and Carolyn Bernstein were among those also beaming about what looks to be a banner year for Nat Geo.
Tom Quinn’s savvy indie was last in Telluride two years ago with the North American premiere of Parasite, one of many Best Picture Oscar winners to get an early boost from the festival. He hasn’t forgotten it and this year was back with a few more films, notably Spencer, straight from Venice. He held a crowded Sunday reception for Neon films at Rustico, at the exact same time Nat Geo was holding its party (both advertised 5-8 p.m. times so you could do each) Among others showing up was star Kristen Stewart, who is getting Oscar buzz for the Pablo Larrain Princess Diana “fable.”
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
One company that can always be counted on to throw a dinner for its Telluride films is Sony Classics, and this year was no different. Taking over a couple of long tables at The National, co-Presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard hosted filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG) who brought their terrific new documentary on Julia Child to premiere, and director Roger Michell and his star Helen Mirren in town for the much delayed North American premiere of The Duke which actually premiered a year ago at Venice and was to come to Telluride then before the fest had to cancel the whole shebang. It will now open in theatres next spring, hopefully when older audiences feel better about going to movies in theatres again. There is a possibility of an Oscar-qualifying run, though, before the end of the year. Both Mirren and co-star Jim Broadbent are terrific in the movie, an incredible true story. I had a great time talking with Mirren through the whole dinner and she really should write a book. She has some great showbiz memories.
Finally, the festival promised they would carry on with this particular Saturday afternoon get-together, usually hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who, as Deadline first reported, decided to skip this year due to concerns they had at the time over the continuing pandemic. Not to worry, there were plenty of Oscar voters who turned up to this packed party, held in a large building with both inside and outside access. There was even a great photo op for those with a handy camera as eagle-eyed observers saw Fifty Shades of Grey co-stars Dornan and Johnson, in Telluride for Belfast and Power of the Dog, respectively having a mini-reunion on the outside deck where most of the guests converged. Branagh, Sorrentino, Mirren, Campion and too many others to count all seemed to be having a great time. Jeffrey Wright was also there representing the entire ensemble cast of The French Dispatch, which had a series of “sneaks” in Telluride before it hits the New York Film Festival later this month for its “official” North American premiere.
And now the long and slow nascent awards season will move on to Toronto, where Dear Evan Hansen will premiere on Thursday night. Thanks Telluride for another great fest.