Industrywide retrenchment, strikes cause dive

The Telluride Film Festival, the intimate mountaintop gathering, erupted like a volcano last year, spewing forth a load of hot American Oscar contenders, from “Juno” to “Into the Wild” to a special 20-minute glimpse of “There Will Be Blood.”

But for its upcoming 35th edition, due to industrywide retrenchment, guild strikes or de facto strikes and what can only be blamed on the ineffable cycles of the arthouse industry, Telluride will be sneak-previewing fewer English-language juggernauts, say organizers and industry-watchers, setting the stage for a fall festival season cool on major kudo contenders.

“The studio films are not ready,” says Telluride co-director Gary Meyer. “There’s a small handful, but a number have been pushed back from September and October to December. We’ll still have some of those films,” Meyer adds, not giving away any specifics about Telluride’s always-undisclosed program (well, officially). “But in some ways we’re getting back to our roots by having more of an international selection.”

In conversations with industry execs, longtime Telluride co-director Tom Luddy says, the writers strike is cited as one of the primary causes of the studio specialty lag. “I think it’s also true that some films we thought would be finished were put on hold,” says Luddy, pointing to Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road,” “so the director could make another film before June 30,” the SAG contract deadline. Rumor has it that John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” and John Hillcoat’s “The Road” will also not be ready for the autumn fests.

In contrast to last year’s launch of several big American Oscar contenders, Meyer says this year will hopefully launch several foreign films into the mix, as Telluride has done previously with “The Lives of Others,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Counterfeiters.” Both he and Luddy point to strong showings from Italy, France and Scandinavia.

Veteran Telluride attendee and Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker concurs. “What was obvious to me in Cannes is that there were fewer high-quality American independent films and more foreign-language films,” he says. “I think it’s cyclical. Last year was a particularly strong year for American auteurs; this year, France and Italy are particularly strong.”

While Telluride’s official deadline for submissions was July 15, organizers acknowledge there’s always room for a last-minute surprise, such as 2007’s late submission and eventually indie blockbuster “Juno,” which was submitted by Fox Searchlight just two weeks before the festival.

“Everyone, including ourselves, were taken by surprise by the movie,” says Fox Searchlight chief operating officer Steve Gilula. “Since there is such a self-selecting group of critics who are cinephiles up there, we thought it would give them a chance to see it outside of the crowds and evaluate it on its own terms.” The strategy paid off, according to Gilula: “It allowed us to position the film, and by the time of Toronto, there was already a tremendous buzz.”

As for this year, Gilula agrees that the fall fests and release calendar won’t be as jam-packed with U.S. prestige pics as last year. “Our slate is late as well,” he admits. But he doesn’t blame the writers strike so much as the risky hothouse atmosphere of festivals.

“Now that these festivals have a much higher profile, with the Internet and heightened intensity and visibility,” he says, “the distribs are thinking about the pros and cons of going to an early fall festival.”

Other programmers are seeing similar shifts. David Nugent, director of programming at the Hamptons Intl. Film Festival, says the lack of studio division pics has less to do with the strike/de facto strike and more to do with last year’s award-season glut. “The marketplace simply could not withstand that overcrowding, and many strong films suffered as a result,” he says. “This year, I think things have contracted a bit and there are less of these films, and they’re being positioned differently.”

On the other hand, Cameron Bailey, the new co-director of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, says what’s available is largely commensurate with previous years. “Everything that is significant in terms of an awards-worthy film, we’ve gotten a look at,” he says. Bailey also believes a number of veteran directors will actually come to this year’s fall table with “especially strong films, a lot of them based around performances,” he says, citing Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” which stars Anne Hathaway. “It’s an especially good year for American actors.”

But other festival directors still have their doubts. “Last year was a groundswell year, with many of our finest filmmakers with new work,” says Richard Pena, program director of the New York Film Festival. “While I’m sure we’ll have a number of U.S. films in the program, I don’t know if there will be the profile that we had last year.”

Telluride’s Luddy, as well, is tamping down expectations. “People have been coming to expect all the Oscar candidates, but I don’t think it’s going to be like what it was,” he says.

However, even if the specialized divisions are supplying fewer glossy pictures, that doesn’t mean the festivals won’t have strong films, as Luddy emphasizes. “We just have to keep showing the films we believe in.”

Still, he and Meyer recognize that as much as Telluride continues to function just fine, with a steady level of attendees and overall films, the cruel vicissitudes of the marketplace can have an effect on the health of the larger arthouse sector of which they are a part.

“The problem with the arthouse is that there are too many screens that need to be filled and too many movies need a place to play,” says Meyer, who co-founded Landmark Theaters. “The result is that not very good movies are playing in theaters, so the audiences are losing faith in the movies that are playing in arthouses. They used to trust everything that played in a Laemmle or Landmark. But now, so many movies are opening each week.”

If Telluride can do anything to remedy the situation, Meyer says, it’s the festival’s selectivity. “If audiences are only going to so many movies a year, we’re able to guide them to some of the better films,” he says.

Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek agrees: “I think it’s good for film in general and independent film in particular, the very specific and personal attention they give to the selection process.

“But it is kind of scary what I hear from my colleagues,” Luddy adds. “I don’t know if the sky is falling, but it makes me feel a little nervous that we might be like the record business, when all of a sudden, there are no more record stores.”

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