Auds are on the lookout for another 'Brokeback,' 'Capote,' 'Walk the Line'

The titles remain officially under wraps until opening day, but it’s no secret that last year’s Telluride Film Festival program unveiled a remarkable number of movies that went on to Oscar glory.

That means excitement this year is running a few degrees higher than normal among fans and filmmakers. Could awards success strike twice in this Rocky Mountain movie mecca?

“We sold out faster this year than ever before,” co-founder Bill Pence reported weeks ahead of the Labor Day weekend event. “It seemed to give us an extraordinary boost in ticket sales.”

Titles that gave ticket-buyers Oscar season bragging rights last year included “Capote” and “Walk the Line,” both shown at Telluride for the first time anywhere, and “Brokeback Mountain,” making its North American premiere in compatibly rugged Western environs within days of its world premiere at Venice.

Also figuring in the year-ago lineup were “Paradise Now,” which went on to a foreign-language nomination, and animated short winner “The Moon and the Son,” whose co-director, John Canemaker, designed this year’s Telluride poster.

Notching credits as a launchpad for the year’s top-quality cinema definitely has its benefits, says Pence, who shares leadership of the event with co-founder Tom Luddy. “It was very impressive to our sponsors, and it made the film companies very open to offering us a first crack at pictures,” he says of the 2006 roster.

Unofficially, the word on the street is that the 2006 event will include Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel” (Paramount Vantage), Doug McGrath’s Capote biopic “Infamous” (Warner Independent) and Todd Field’s “Little Children” (New Line).

Add to that list a film that premiered at Cannes: the Romanian film that won the Camera d’Or, “12:08 East of Bucharest,” directed by Corneliu Porumboiu.

Two offshore imports from Sony Pictures Classics are also supposedly in the lineup: Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others,” from Germany and “The Italian,” a Russian film by Andrei Kravchuk.

Fests in Venice, Toronto and Gotham also will have some of these titles, but it matters to attendees — few of whom can be expected to make the full circuit — and it matters to Telluride that there be premieres.

“Our audience comes a long way to be here,” says Pence. “The journey isn’t easy, and the lodging isn’t inexpensive. So since we don’t announce our program in advance, we developed the philosophy that every film must be, at the very least, a North American premiere. So that if people have been to Sundance or Seattle or some other festival in this country, there is still enough reason for them to come to Telluride.”

In the juggle to avoid clashes with celebrity-hungry fall juggernauts like Venice and Toronto, semantics also come into play. Telluride tries to avoid the words “world premiere.”

“We prefer to say ‘unveilings,’ ” says Pence. “We leave the folderol and the red carpet to Venice and Toronto.”

That said, the rustic Colorado event still gets the pictures first, or at least first in North America.

With a highly selective program of only 20 new titles, augmented by retrospectives and rediscoveries, the 3½-day fest has never had a problem maintaining the level of quality that has led to its tip-top reputation, Pence declares.

“Unveilings” during the past few years alone have included “Kinsey,” “House of Flying Daggers,” “Finding Neverland,” “Lost in Translation,” “The Fog of War” and “Bowling for Columbine,” among others that went on to figure prominently during awards season.

Last year, the convergence of timing and Oscar-magnet films was particularly notable. “The festival is only as good as the films being made, and last year there was a swell of films that came up at the right moment that were perfect for Telluride,” Pence says.

Launched in the early 1970s, Telluride draws many of the most committed and influential film watchers on the circuit, including cineastes who program fests and arthouses in other cities, plus a smattering of key press and a slew of stimulating cultural figures and celebrities, who may be part of the program or merely out for a social and cinematic binge.

Passes regularly sell out at prices ranging from $325 to $3,500. Despite the SRO crowd, the festival is striving to develop and renew its audience, with an emphasis on drawing younger and first-time attendees. For the first time this year, daily content from this year’s event will be posted as it unfolds on a new feature called “SHOWroom” on the fest’s Web site, TellurideFilmFestival.org.

“We’re looking for a way to bring a new young audience to Telluride, and we want to use a medium they understand, which is the Internet,” Pence says. “We don’t want to be perceived as aging or in a time capsule. We’re reaching out.”

Meanwhile, the festival is unveiling a new venue of sorts, a tiny black-box theater formerly known as the Mini, now to be re-christened the Pierre, for Pierre Rissient, a filmmaker and longtime adviser to the festival. Situated alongside the new 650-seat Palms Theater, the venue will strive for a French atmosphere enhanced by a silhouette of its namesake, whom Pence calls “the world’s No. 1 cineaste,” plus snacks like croissants and coq au vin.

This year’s guest-directed sidebar will also have a French theme, thanks to its host, former Jean-Luc Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin (see box). And Silver Medallion honors will go to renowned film historian and critic David Thomson.

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