And the Telluride Film Festival, in its 37th year, has its own strategy for landing them.
The festival directors, Tom Luddy, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger spend the year gathering information by listening to friends in the business, and especially members of the festival’s “Esteemed Council of Advisors,” including luminaries Laurie Anderson, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Milos Shelike, Salman Rushdie and Saul Zaentz. As a result, many of the films that premiere at Telluride really are discoveries, tipped to the directors by advisors. Films appear on the festival program that have escaped notice by others, are not highly anticipated, and have not been the subject of industry gossip and speculation.
One example on this year’s program is Chico and Rita, an animated film by the Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker Francisco Trueba about Cuban music, which was first suggested by a member of the esteemed council, Meyer said this week. It’s a matter of community and collective awareness: somebody with an interest in movies tells somebody associated with the Telluride Film Festival about a film nearing completion, and here it finds its audience.
Discovery has long been Telluride’s stock-in-trade. It is the only major film festival that does not announce its program in advance, leaving its directors additional time to find the latest works. When attendees – who make the investment to attend without knowing what they’ll see – scan the terrific program notes, they may or may not be able to guess that Oka! Amerikee, about an ethnomusicologist who ventures into the deepest region of Africa, could become this year’s breakout film. Oka! Amerikee, which has its world premiere here, and arrives without a distribution deal, is “quintessentially Telluride,” Meyer said. High praise, indeed.
Telluride is well known for its informed and passionate audience, which serves as the final essential piece of the Telluride Film Festival puzzle. The filmmakers do their best and the programmers make carefully considered choices, but in the end it’s the audience that renders the ultimate judgment. The festival is planned for months in advance, only to remain unpredictable. Some examples of surprise hits from the past: Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992), which came in as an unknown film, grabbed the attention of Telluride’s audiences, and rode that wave to become an Oscar nominee; Roger and Me, which in 1989 became the most TBA’d film in Telluride history and launched Michael Moore to prominence; and independent breakouts like El Mariachi, Sling Blade, Swingers and Slumdog Millionare.
This year features the usual intoxicating Telluride mix of new unheralded features and documentaries, deserving revivals of classics both forgotten and overdue for reconsideration, highly anticipated premieres by famous directors, and a smattering of glamour.
Is there any international star more glamorous, for example, than Claudia Cardinale, one of this year’s tributes, with scores of credits?
Or any auteur more deserving of a tribute than director Peter Weir, who has steadily amassed an oeuvre second-to-none over the last thirty years? Weir’s new film, The Way Back, is a challenging film by a master at the top of his game, Meyer said, independently made, selected for the program before it had a distributor, and presenting an opportunity for cineastes who attend the tribute to look back at a director’s long career.
This year’s third tribute goes to Colin Firth, an actor who so completely submerges himself into his roles that he is easy to overlook. To recognize an actor as his career is taking off is also quintessentially Telluride.
Also on the program is a new documentary by Telluride Film Fest regular and Oscar winner Errol Morris, Tabloid. It is in the category of Morris films that may leave audiences not entirely sure how to react, Huntsinger said. There’s also a program exploring 3D from the earliest experiments with it at the dawn of film history to the present, presented by Serge Bromberg; a new film out of Romania, If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle, which comes from what may be the world’s most interesting national cinema of the moment; and Ken Burns’s sequel to his series Baseball, The Tenth Inning.
Meyer said the festival also will present two sneak previews that are likely to be world premieres of films that have a higher profile. Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, possibly? Forgive me if I’ve guessed right; I’m just another filmgoer engaging in enjoyable speculation about a film that would make sense, and one I am eager to see. There were other new movies worthy of sneaking this year, Meyer said, but it is part of Telluride’s discipline to keep the program to its three-day limit, which has the effect of keeping the bar set very high.
Sustaining the festival is largely a question of understanding its scale, Huntsinger added. Since Telluride is not a film market, like many other major festivals, it depends on financing from patrons (both corporate and individual), pass sales and the labor of hundreds of volunteers. The Great Recession has hurt, Huntsinger said, particularly with respect to corporate support. About half of the drop in corporate support was made up in stepped-up patron support, and about half in budget cuts. But thanks to the passion of those who produce the event and those who attend it year after year, the show will go on, and Huntsinger said no one will notice budget cuts.
“Our goal, every year, is to surpass ourselves,” Huntsinger said.
Partly in gratitude to the local community, there are more free shows on the schedule than ever before.
“We want to make sure people in the Telluride community know how much we appreciate them,” Meyer said.
“I would like to not have to start next year’s festival with a talk about necessary belt-tightening,” Huntsinger said. “But Telluride should be proud of the miracle we’ve sustained. The Telluride Film Festival is a beautiful miracle.”