The Big Change at Telluride

Colorado's festival fights to keep it like it is

2007 marks a year of massive change for Colorado’s four-day Telluride Film Festival, which unfolds every Labor Day weekend.

For the first time in 34 years, the fest’s mom-and-pop operators Bill and Stella Pence will be notably absent. On Sept. 4, 2006, the couple said goodbye to the festival they had nurtured since 1974 and announced that fest co-founder Tom Luddy would continue at the helm with Gary Meyer as his new co-director.

A longtime specialized film exhibitor and co-founder of Landmark Theaters, Meyer had worked closely with Telluride for five years as resident curator. “The board of governors was very clear,” Meyer says. “Stay the course this year. You don’t have to make any radical changes. That said, there are some little innovations.”

“In the first year,” Luddy adds, “we wanted to keep on track. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This is the biggest management shift at the fest since curator William K. Everson left in 1987. But after he stopped showing obscure classics, the festival kept the tradition. And instead of replacing Everson, they added guest directors every year, from Stephen Sondheim to Bertrand Tavernier. This year, Edith Kramer, retired curator and director of the Pacific Film Archive, does the honors.

Going forward under Luddy and Meyer, this relaxed summer-camp fest should continue to hold out against the forces of growth and exploitation that impact the rest of the film world.

Telluride is the only major international film festival to keep its program and guests a secret until the festival opens. Press and industry buy their passes along with everyone else. At most, some 4,000 extra people swell the town’s population over Labor Day weekend, including some 1,200 passholders, 600 staff and volunteers, and incoming talent and their handlers. There are no lines of red-carpet photographers and few TV crews.

As always, the celebs of the 33rd fest — Forest Whitaker, Penelope Cruz and Derek Luke — walked around the town, mixing with attendees Peter Bogdanovich, Todd Field, Kevin Macdonald, Leonard Maltin, Doug McGrath, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Ken Burns, Steve Shainberg, Mira Nair and Roger Michell. True to tradition, the fest launched several serious Oscar campaigns, from “Little Children,” “Venus” and “The Last King of Scotland” to “The Lives of Others.”

While the Telluride quality standard is likely to continue, major changes aren’t expected. One innovation: In response to a dramatic surge in submissions of docs about cinema, Luddy and Meyer have added a ninth venue, the Backlot, to screen eight or nine of those films, which will include the likes of Variety chief film critic Todd McCarthy’s doc about French critic Pierre Rissient. “We didn’t want to turn them all down,” says Luddy, who also notes the fest has sold out sooner than ever before. “There’s more pressure on us,” he adds. A permanent additional venue is in Telluride’s future sights as well.

Meyer also plans to add more late shows and print last-minute screenings in the official program, which fest attendees had to scramble to find in the past. Movies that are expected to play the 34th Telluride include the Cannes prizewinners “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a Romanian abortion drama; and Julian Schnabel’s French-language “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

Also likely to turn up in Telluride are “Margot at the Wedding,” from Noah Baumbach, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman; the Xtreme sports skiing documentary “Steep”; Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan movie “I’m Not There,” starring Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger; Alison Eastwood’s “Rails & Ties”; and Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, a Telluride resident.

Behind the scenes, some dramatic shifts have taken place. The co-directors swiftly moved the fest’s base of operations in Portsmouth, N.H., to the Bay Area. With them went the fest’s pivotal director of support, Muffy Deslaurier. “She’s the glue holding us all together, with 17 years of festival history,” says Meyer, who signed a lease for the fest’s new San Francisco headquarters from a woman who is a loyal Telluride festgoer.

The duo’s most crucial hire has taken over Stella Pence’s role as managing director, running the sprawling day-to-day operations of the festival and its staff and volunteers. Luddy turned to line producer-production manager Julie Huntsinger (“Vertical Limit,” “Racing Stripes”), whom he had first met as an assistant at Zoetrope, who was eager to take on the challenge. As soon as she finished shooting “P.S. I Love You” in New York, she packed up her home in L.A. and moved to San Francisco. “I’m inside the sausage factory now,” she says.

“She lets us concentrate on programming films,” Meyer says. “The transition has been incredibly smooth.”

Telluride regular Roger Ebert (who will skip the fest as he continues his recovery from cancer surgery) thinks that what Meyer and Luddy will “miss most is Stella and Bill’s almost preternatural calm,” he writes. “Running an event like that has to be fraught with a crisis every second.”

For producer-director Allan Arkush (“Heroes”), Telluride is a welcome break in the television production season. He’s been attending since the 1970s, when he was toiling for Roger Corman’s New World. He still looks forward to the unexpected discovery, whether it’s spending a day at the Sheridan Bar with the permanently parked Elisha Cook Jr., who would tell any story for the price of a drink, or attending a John Waters tribute to William Castle.

“It’s a way to recharge my batteries,” he says, “get inspired again before the big push for Christmas.”

Werner Herzog isn’t worried about the new team. “There will be continuity,” insists the filmmaker, who returns to Telluride whenever he has a film under his arm; this year it’s “Encounters at the End of the World.” “It will take two to three years to make the transition on the practical side. But spiritually it will be the same. Telluride is a family reunion of those who really love films.”

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