Telluride retains insider flavor

Program kept secret until opening day

The Telluride Film Festival was founded 26 years ago by Bill Pence, Tom Luddy and James Card in order to celebrate the art of film — not, they insist, to cater in any way to the film business.

Located in a historic Colorado mining town high up in the Rockies, the festival’s home is scenic and beautiful, and, at 300 miles from Denver and a dizzying 9,078 feet above sea level, accessible only to the most devout filmgoer. And there are many such enthusiasts who come to the festival year after year.

“The festival is more like a family gathering,” co-founder and co-director Pence says. “The audience is loyal and comes from all over the country. The festival was once described to me as a summer camp for movie lovers, and I think that’s very accurate.”

Regular notable festival guests at the Labor Day weekend event include Ken Burns, Chuck Jones and Werner Herzog. To discourage a crass interest in movie stars and big-name directors, the festival does not announce its program until the day the event begins.

“For the first three years of the festival, we did announce our program ahead of time,” Pence says. “But we found that people would come just to hound the various stars and try to get autographs.

“The third year, our major guest was supposed to be Jeanne Moreau,” he continues, “but she couldn’t come due to illness. The headlines in the local papers didn’t announce any of the other great things that were going on during the festival, but instead wrote, ‘Jeanne Moreau Cancels.’ That told me something about the press and the desire to find the negative in every story.”

Since the festival keeps each year’s program secret, audiences come based on their trust of the festival’s programmers.

“We want to appeal to the kind of people who are willing to take a chance and to people interested in cinema itself,” Pence explains. “And this way, everyone arrives on equal ground and we are able to program up to the very last minute. I like to say that we’re very anti-hype — we would rather underpromise and over-deliver.”

Because the town of Telluride is so small, the festival creates temporary venues to augment the two existing theaters.

“It’s like a carnival coming into town,” Pence says. “We create an Egyptian Theater at the high school and we transform the Masonic Hall into a small Victorian-style cinema. And this year we are building our seventh new theater, the Chuck Jones Cinema.”

The festival’s very eclectic programming perhaps can be summarized only as featuring films that are truly about the art rather than the business of cinema.

Pence notes as past highlights the first presentation of Abel Gance’s extraordinary restored “Napoleon,” as well as the world premiere of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”

Last year featured the debut of the restored “Touch of Evil,” along with a discussion with Janet Leigh and Dennis Weaver about working with Orson Welles. The 1998 edition also bravely gave Todd Solondz’s controversial film “Happiness” its North American premiere and helped foster a debate that would follow the film for several months.

While Pence could not reveal anything about this year’s program, he said the festival’s guest director is Peter Sellars.

“He is a passionate film lover,” Pence notes.

Thus, despite the transformation of many festivals into markets that cater more to acquisition executives than film enthusiasts, Telluride, after more than 25 years, remains devoted to the art of film.

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