Pix upstage deals at Telluride

Acquisitions happy coincidence at event

This article was corrected on Sept. 4, 2002.

TELLURIDE, Colo. — While film festivals continue to breed with rabbit-like efficiency, only a select few really matter to the entertainment industry. Of those, only the Telluride Film Festival has a reputation built not on its marketplace or even talent spotting but on its wholehearted love of film, bidding wars be damned.

Telluride doesn’t announce its lineup until the start of the four-day event. Nevertheless, it was clear weeks ago that the 29th edition of the fest, which ended Monday, probably wouldn’t offer much new product for buyers.

That didn’t matter to execs like Screen Gems’ Valerie Van Galder, Paramount Classics’ David Dinerstein and Focus Films VP acquisitions Jason Resnick; they were happy to be at Telluride even without films to promote or to buy.

“I wasn’t going to cancel my trip,” Resnick said, “because talent is very accessible. I get to catch up on films I haven’t seen and see films I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.”

Last year, word that Nicole Holofcener’s “Lovely and Amazing” would make its premiere high in the San Juan Mountains leaked out in plenty of time for execs to reserve space on the Denver-Telluride shuttle. This year, virtually no movies came to Telluride without distribution in place, save the American Masters docu “Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving,” and “Ken Park,” a hardcore and nihilistic drama written by Harmony Korine (“Kids”) and co-directed by Larry Clark (“Kids”) and Ed Lachman, cinematographer of “Erin Brockovich.”

While both pics had their fans, neither seemed likely to make buyers immediately reach for their wallets. Newmarket Films president Bob Berney, who acquired the racy and unrated “Y tu mama tambien” for IFC Films, described “Ken Park” as “beyond NC-17.”

Buying secondary

That’s fine; at Telluride, acquisitions are simply happy coincidence. While festival co-founder and director Tom Luddy was pleased to hear that Lynne Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar” would be distributed by Cowboy Booking, what really got him excited was the response to a silent film from Germany, 1929’s “The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrowna,” directed by Hanns Schwarz and restored by the George Eastman House. Pic’s exposure at Telluride now gives the previously “lost” film an excellent chance of being released in a Criterion DVD format.

Many of the major buyers in attendance were here on official business. Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard oversaw seven titles, while Ray came to support “Bowling for Columbine.” But they’d have been here even if their jobs didn’t demand it; Ray even attended back when a post-October Films noncompete clause prevented him from working.

“It’s the best festival in the world,” Bernard said. “It’s such a pain in the butt to get to and no one knows what they’re getting. Where else are you going to be able to hang out with Lillian Gish or bump into Cab Calloway? Everybody who goes is a pure cinema lover.”

Equally home to rich Texans, mellow ski bums and a seemingly endless supply of well-mannered dogs, the scenic town of Telluride is renowned for its laid-back vibe as much as its towering mountains covered with ancient firs. Yet no one should mistake the event for a lackadaisical affair just because the festival offers free daily outdoor yoga classes and nature hikes. This is an event tightly run according to its own eccentric — and effective — rules.

Serious business

For its warm embrace of film and film lovers, Telluride doesn’t mollycoddle its audience. While this year was the first that the fest hired a full-service public relations firm (“There are now 1,700 film festivals in the world,” fest co-founder/director Bill Pence said), members of the press are still obliged to pay for their passes, photographers are warned to steer clear of aggressive behavior, and if your cell phone rings during a screening, you will be swiftly ejected.

Most infamous is the festival’s practice of not announcing its films in advance, a policy established after the event’s third year. That was when Telluride had to cancel a tribute to Jeanne Moreau after a bout of oral surgery left the actress unable to travel. The press, however, played the cancellation as Moreau dismissing the festival. Luddy and Pence vowed never again to give advance notice of the festival’s plans. “We’d rather underpromise and overdeliver,” Pence said.

As it turned out, Luddy and Pence should probably name a theater after Moreau’s dentist. The decision he inadvertently inspired gives Telluride much of its unique character. Without the hit list provided by an advance announcement, there’s nothing for executives to track and no one for paparazzi to chase — just the promise of a lot of good films. Besides, when Jack Nicholson attended the festival in its second year, “People came up to Telluride just to get his autograph,” Pence said. “I really didn’t like that.”

This year, “Auto Focus” star Willem Dafoe stood in line at the Steaming Bean on Colorado Avenue and drew only the notice of the cashier when she took his coffee order. Tribute recipient Peter O’Toole enjoyed a solo dinner at the Hotel Columbia’s Cosmopolitan restaurant and graciously accepted the well wishes of passing fans.

The celebrity who probably drew the most attention from fans was Chez Panisse owner and culinary authority Alice Waters, who attended as Luddy’s guest. “More people try to find me so they can get in touch with my ex-girlfriend,” he said good-naturedly. Indeed, Luddy said he named her famous Berkeley restaurant 30 years ago after one of Waters’ favorite characters in a trilogy of 1930s Marcel Pagnol films.

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