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Can Telluride Continue to Steal Venice and Toronto’s Thunder?

REARVIEW: Variety critic looks back on a weekend of exciting festival premieres and wonders where things go from here.

For decades, the Venice and Toronto film festivals have stood by while Telluride stole their thunder on world premieres, but could this year’s impressive 40th anniversary Telluride lineup — featuring sneaks of Oscar contenders “Labor Day,” “Gravity,” “Prisoners” and “12 Years a Slave” — have gone too far?

To understand the question, you’ll need a bit of context. The world’s top-tier festivals (of which Venice, Toronto, Berlin, Sundance and Cannes make up the core five) all play a variation on the same game, insisting on world premieres to attract press and attention. If your movie has shown somewhere else before, in most cases, they don’t want it, the thinking being that people only pay attention when a whole bunch of juicy films screen for the first time.

Nestled high in a Colorado mining town over the long Labor Day weekend, Telluride is a different sort of festival entirely, catering to a rarefied breed of film lover, the sort that can afford to drop $800 or more on a pass, trusting the programmers to surprise them with four days of exceptional films. Telluride is also unique in that it doesn’t play the publicity game — at least, not until recently. Apart from the trades and a few of the country’s top critics (like the late Roger Ebert), very few press attended Telluride, which helped the festival maintain a relatively low profile.

Everything has changed in the last few years, thanks to a major shift in the Academy Awards. Until 2006, only four best picture winners had debuted at film festivals: “Annie Hall” (Filmex), “Chariots of Fire” (Cannes), “The Last Emperor” (Tokyo) and “American Beauty” (Toronto). Since then, four of the five most recent Oscar winners — “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” — were featured in Telluride. (Of that group, only “The Artist” wasn’t a world premiere.) Those same pics also screened less than a week later at the press-heavy Toronto film festival, which can also claim the world premieres of “American Beauty,” “Crash” and “The Hurt Locker,” though losing premiere status to Telluride severely limits Toronto’s bragging rights.

Why? For starters, Telluride counts a hefty number of Academy voters among its regular attendees, whereas Toronto is geared toward film buyers and the Canadian public. Suddenly, a new kind of journalist started flocking to Telluride. Let’s call them the Oscar pundits: a mix of columnists and bloggers obsessed with handicapping the Academy Awards. Thanks to them, the coverage of Telluride exploded virtually overnight (though they partly miss the point, since nearly half the program is made up of revival screenings and other awards-irrelevant goodies).

Still, from the Telluride programmers’ perspective, it must be gratifying to know that voters and press are considering the films they invite in Oscar terms. The watershed year appears to have been 2005, when Telluride scooped Venice on Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (by a matter of hours) and Toronto on “Capote” and “Walk the Line.” Typically, Telluride does Venice the courtesy of waiting a few hours after a film’s world premiere on the Lido (where the Italian fest takes place) before screening the same movie in the States. Toronto has it worse, since Telluride is done by the time the massive Canadian fest begins, which means each and every overlap sucks attention away from their big red-carpet premieres.

As for Venice, considering the high price of covering that festival, North American outlets have found it more convenient to tackle Telluride instead, and now that the programmers have established a strong track record for launching Oscar nominees, the Colorado event has siphoned away much of the attention Venice might once have gotten from U.S. outlets. At least they’ve always had world-premiere status to fall back on … sort of.

In a rare coup, Telluride got the jump on three Venice selections this year — Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known” — and was the first stop after the Lido for two of the fest’s best-received pics, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” (which had previously opened in its native Japan). Toronto got hit especially hard. In addition to those five films, it lost world-premiere status on “Prisoners,” “Labor Day,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Ida,” “The Invisible Woman,” “Tim’s Vermeer” and “Starred Up,” not to mention North American dibs on Berlin winner “Gloria” and Cannes favorites “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “The Past.”

According to insiders, this has become a major source of tension for Toronto co-director Cameron Bailey, who’s been getting heat from the board about the Telluride incursion (but has never been too threatened when Venice preempts their picks). The overlap is nothing new, mind you, though the recent spike in press at Telluride undermines the sense of discovery they’re trying to cultivate. By my count, there remain 167 features eligible for Variety to review at Toronto this year, a number high enough to support the charge that Toronto will show practically anything, provided that they can have the premiere and there’s a star of some sort attached. They can still brag that 25 of the past audience award winners at Toronto have gone on to be Oscar nominated.

Both Venice and Toronto can also take comfort that this wasn’t a typical year for Telluride. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the festival added a fifth day of programming. Meanwhile, “Argo’s” success the year prior no doubt convinced Warner Bros. to send its two key fall titles, “Gravity” and the intense kidnapping thriller “Prisoners” (the studio isn’t a regular player in the fest), and encouraged Paramount to plug the aptly titled “Labor Day” into the same kick-off patrons’ screening slot where “Argo” debuted a year earlier.

“Labor Day” left the majority of the room in tears, but was quickly eclipsed by stronger films, including Paramount’s smaller black-and-white family-bonding dramedy “Nebraska” (whose “The Descendants” began its life at Telluride two years earlier). Benefiting from a new score and some tiny nips and tucks since Cannes, where it met with mixed reviews, “Nebraska” hit the sweet spot with Telluride crowds. Three months ago, I wouldn’t have factored it into the Oscar race; now, it’s clearly a contender.

The festival lavished heavy attention on another Cannes pic as well, feting “Inside Llewyn Davis” with an outdoor folk-music concert and a special tribute to the Coen brothers and their longtime musical consigliere, T-Bone Burnett. “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t nearly so warm and fuzzy as “Nebraska,” but after seeing it a second time, I’m convinced it’s the finest film we’ll see this year — a portrait of the aspiring folk singer who doesn’t get to be Bob Dylan that examines the selfishness and personal sacrifice it takes to be artistic. One of the central tensions of the film is the tug-of-war between “making it” and remaining true to the craft, and the one thing every film in the festival had in common was a commitment to the latter.

Even big-budget “Gravity” — which tracks a stranded astronaut’s desperate fight for survival — represents a huge gamble on the part of director Alfonso Cuaron and star Sandra Bullock (it made a perfect double-bill with J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” starring festival honoree Robert Redford as a lone sailor battling the elements at sea). It took no less nerve for Glazer and actress Scarlett Johansson to make the biggest dud of the fest, “Under the Skin,” in which she plays an alien predator who lures random Scottish guys back to her apartment — a black widow scheme infinitely more interesting than her role in “The Avengers.”

This was a year of obsessive characters on both sides of the camera, from the outback-crossing true story that became “Tracks” to “Tim’s Vermeer,” the crowd-favorite documentary about an inventor determined to crack the Dutch master’s technique.

Of the world-premiere films, the one that impressed me the most was “12 Years a Slave,” in which British director Steve McQueen tackles the subject Hollywood won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. One has to go all the way back to 1977’s “Roots” to find a major American project willing to stare the subject this directly in the face — and that’s exactly what McQueen does, leveraging his penchant for long, unbroken takes to capture the beatings and lynchings that put America’s not-distant-enough history to shame.

Whether or not McQueen and his across-the-board-exceptional ensemble realized it, there was so much riding on this film. Had it proven any less strong than what they’ve achieved, the film might not have connected with audiences, and the play-it-safe studios would have pointed to its failure as an excuse to continue avoiding the topic of slavery for another quarter century. It took guts for Fox Searchlight to get behind his film, and the first wave of deeply emotional support suggests the gamble was worth it.

It’s that first wave that Toronto doesn’t want to lose control over, though the tremendous reception for “Gravity” (which followed on the heels of its opening-night Venice berth) just goes to show that no one festival “owns” a film. The best they can hope for is to be part of the phenomenon these films become, content that they played their part in boosting such risky and iconoclastic projects to the international stage.

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