Telluride Film Fest trades on secrecy

Film fans attending the upcoming 32nd Telluride Film Festival are as likely to see the hot movies of the season as those attending the Venice or Toronto fests– they just won’t know which ones until after they arrive.

Festival co-founders and co-directors Bill Pence and Tom Luddy keep the lineup secret until next Friday’s opening, allowing them to slip in “unofficial” premieres of movies that are officially debuting in Venice or Toronto.

Also, because Telluride is only a four-day event, Luddy and Pence can be pickier than an organizer trying to program a week or more. That’s not to say all the movies are memorable; some on the lineup fade quickly away, as at any fest.

And there’s a definite downside to the secrecy: Because people don’t have the lineup in advance, they can’t do any research, so they end up watching movies they might otherwise would have skipped.

Loyal festgoers take the erratic scheduling in stride.

“Sundance has become the MTV of cinema and Toronto is a huge marketplace. Telluride is still for the love of cinema,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, who has been attending for years.

If Telluride hasn’t been overrun by the masses, it’s probably because of the town’s remote location in the southwestern section of the Colorado Rockies — not to mention that it can be 70 degrees one day, and snowing the next.

Parties and accommodations are rustic, unless you are a guest of one of the showbiz royalty who own homes in Telluride (Oprah, Tom Cruise, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, among them).

It’s difficult to get there, and costly if opting to bypass the daylong drive from Denver or Phoenix and fly directly into Telluride or nearby Montrose. (Pence almost always drives from the Bay Area.)

This means there’s a built-in exclusivity to Telluride, but nowhere on the festival circuit are film execs more relaxed or easy to approach. And there’s never any publicity surrounding which star might show up.

Where buzz begins

Telluride can be a gold mine in terms of getting buzz started as the festival season gets under way, particularly for specialty studio divisions such as Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Paramount Classics or Warner Independent Pictures.

The crowd flocking there is elite and powerful, made up of top film critics, indie distribs, some exhibitors and the heads of the studio specialty arms. But there’s also the oncologist from Pasadena and the housewife from Texas who are straight-up movie buffs — an ideal test audience.

“It’s a totally unique experience and a wonderful place to showcase a film. You get away from the noise and the soundbites of people trying to negotiate deals,” said Samuel Goldwyn Films president Meyer Gottlieb.

Last year, there was a sneak screening of “Finding Neverland” at Telluride, hours before the film premiered at Venice. Also unspooling that year at Telluride were “Kinsey” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education,” both of which had their North American preems days later at Toronto.

“Keeping it secret is just part of the mystique of Telluride. People have fun guessing what the movies will be. It’s become part of the festival’s signature,” said Luddy, a Bay Area producer who keeps an office at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope. “We don’t claim we are having world premieres. As far as we’re concerned, Venice and Toronto can stand by that.”

This year, for example, there have been whispers that Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust” might screen at Telluride, which runs Sept. 2-5.

More likely possibilities include Warner Independent’s “Everything Is Illuminated,” directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood; Focus Features’ “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by Ang Lee; and Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto,” which Sony Classics is distributing.

“Illuminated” and “Breakfast” are set to premiere at Toronto, while Lee’s latest film will play both there and at Venice.

Luddy said people who come to Telluride do so on “blind faith,” confident they will have a diverse program of films to choose from.

It’s a bizarre ritual to watch. On Friday, the festival office begins dispersing fliers announcing the lineup throughout the former mining town.

“They get their fliers, and everyone starts scurrying,” Luddy said.

Even more unusual is the fact that the film critics go along with Telluride’s honor code, and generally don’t try to “out” the lineup.

Very few in the working press go to Telluride; if they do, they have to pay for their passes like everyone else.

“Telluride reminds you of what Sundance used to be. Sundance has continued to grow and expand, and become much larger. The motivations have changed, and there’s a far more serious business aspect to Sundance,” Gottlieb said.

Or, as one indie film exec said, other festivals have become about “branding and booty.”

Grand opening

Pence and his wife, Stella, launched the film festival in 1974 with Luddy after Pence bought the Telluride Opera House.

The festival makes only a fraction of its budget from passes, with patrons and sponsors footing most of the bill. This year, Apple is the main sponsor for the first time.

Telluride almost always sells out of its basic passes, which cost $325. The next level costs $675, while the patron pass costs $3,500. About 2,500 people attend.

Over the years, Telluride’s various public venues, from the local high school gym to the Masonic Hall to the community center to an outside park, have been turned into impromptu theaters with the help of George Lucas and the like.

“There’s no Microsoft tent in Telluride,” Bernard said.

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