Telluride turns thirty

Film fest unveils secrets for anni edition at Cannes party

Of the major film festivals, Telluride may hold the title of most idiosyncratic, with its remote location, secretive programming sked and distinct lack of hype.

After three decades of quiet splendor, all of that could change. On May 20, Telluride will trumpet its 30th anni at the mother of all fests with a soiree on the Croisette at Variety Village.

“For us, who usually play it low key at Cannes, it’s a coming-out party,” says fest co-director and co-founder Bill Pence.

Since Telluride’s inception in 1974, Pence and co-director/co-founder Tom Luddy have come to the Riviera fest annually to scope the international film scene.

“Our planning begins at Cannes. Contacts are made, films seen,” says Pence, who normally finds six to eight features in Cannes, roughly a third of the films shown at Telluride.

The fest unspools over 3½ days each Labor Day weekend (this year, Aug. 29-Sept. 1) in the small Colorado mountain town (pop. about 2,000). Because of a limited time frame, only about 20 features unspool.

The fest was the brain child of Eastman House film archivist James Card, who came up with the idea of showing films in what was then a ghost town. Card brought together Pence, who owned a chain of theaters in the Rockies, and Luddy, who ran the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif.

Over the years, Pence says the fest has emphasized new films and discoveries, although, “we still try to maintain the balance of past, present and future. We’re the only major festival that focuses on that which has come before.”

For more than 15 years, the fest organizers also invite a guest director to collaborate on some special selections. Alums include Salman Rushdie and John Boorman. Their identities, like the fest sked, are kept a secret until opening day. (This year’s guest director, however, will be announced at the anni party in Cannes.)

While the fest is notorious for its secrecy, it is also known for its bucolic, intimate atmosphere.

“My ‘Civil War’ series premiered where most of my films have premiered, in the Masons hall over a hardware store,” recalls documentarian Ken Burns, who has been a member of the fest’s Council of Advisers for nine years and has attended Telluride every year since 1985.

And while Telluride is not a film market, pics such as Nicole Holofcener’s “Lovely & Amazing” have found distributors after screening there.

With just 1,500 passes available each year and close quarters, Telluride’s intimate feel is a popular fest feature.

“I’ve stopped going to every other festival,” Burns says. “Telluride is a place to meet filmmakers away from the hype, the cell phones and the junk that gets in the way. It’s a refuge proudly outside the marketplace.”