Telluride Film Festival Director on Why They Ultimately Pulled the Plug (EXCLUSIVE)

Festival head Julie Huntsinger planned to host a Covid-safe event, but its cancellation puts others — and Oscar season — in doubt.

telluride film festival
Chris Willman / Variety

Call me crazy, stubborn or reckless, but until today’s announcement that the Telluride Film Festival has been canceled, I’d optimistically kept my reservation, holding out hope that the elite fall gathering in Colorado might happen after all.

There’s not another festival like it. In addition to launching such best picture Oscar winners as “The King’s Speech,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight,” Telluride has introduced North American audiences to the likes of “Lady Bird,” “The Rider” and “Waves.” It’s the ideal place to see movies — like summer camp for cinephiles, who share screenings and conversations over a long weekend together — and this year, it represented the proverbial light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Passes went on sale back in late February for the high-altitude sprocket opera, and within hours, they’d sold out. A few weeks later, everything had turned upside down as coronavirus outbreak exploded across the United States, casting the fate of all 2020 film festivals in doubt. Despite the uncertainty, Telluride executive director Julie Huntsinger tells Variety that only a small fraction of this year’s potential attendees had gotten cold feet (most of those simply chose to roll their badges over to 2021), but that “skyrocketing” numbers of Covid-19 cases in Arizona and Texas forced Telluride planners to face the facts.

Why not cancel the festival months earlier? “On Friday, I was at a facility that was manufacturing tests for us, thousands of 15-minute turnaround tests that we could use,” explains Huntsinger, who had imagined all kinds of precautions to protect attendees from transmission of the virus, including betting on this experimental Emeryville-based testing company. “We had everything in place to have a safe festival.”

I for one believed her, but some things are beyond the organizers’ control — and that’s a loss to film culture in general. Symbolically, if Telluride had gone forward, it would have signaled that there’s still a chance for prestigious films to salvage a severely hobbled 2020 film year. Instead, its cancellation bodes poorly not just for the fall, but especially those studio movies — like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Disney’s “Mulan” — that still cling to August release dates. If the situation won’t be better by early September, what hope is there for the rest of the summer?

For the past dozen years, Telluride has served as an unofficial firing pistol for award season. The rarefied event unspools over Labor Day weekend and brings together Academy members, filmmakers and the kind of die-hard cinephiles who can afford to shell out a few thousand dollars for four days of meticulously curated specialty films, many of which go on to factor prominently in the Oscar race.

Granted, a good chunk of the Telluride program overlaps with the Venice and Toronto film festivals — which have yet to throw in the towel — but they don’t spotlight their treasures in quite the same way. Compared with Telluride’s tiny, ultra-curated lineup, the other events bury the gems among dozens if not hundreds of other movies. By contrast, Telluride encourages a privileged sense of discovery for those in attendance, honoring artists such as “Roma” director Alfonso Cuarón and “Judy” star Renée Zellweger via special tribute sessions that set the Oscar wheels in motion.

Although Telluride intended to waive the requirement that all films be accompanied by at least one of their creators, “Every single tribute [honoree] was attending, and they were good ones! I had two filmmakers tell me that if they had to walk to Telluride, they would,” says Huntsinger, who hopes to make the lineup public later this month in order to support the films they would have invited.

Will such an announcement matter? Does it really help a film like Francis Lee’s “Ammonite” or Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” to tout that they could have played Telluride, when the potentially tastemaking buzz that originates from a shared screening among media elites can’t spark into existence there? Roughly half the Telluride lineup fizzles each year (remember “The Front Runner” that wasn’t?), and part of the unique process are those organic first reactions that no Oscar spin-doctor can control. The audience decides.

According to Huntsinger, 2020 was shaping up to be a less studio-centric edition, compared to those at which movies such as “Gravity” or “First Man” made their North American premieres. “It was never going to be a giant year, even without the pandemic,” she says. “We start tracking the films that might be available in January, if not before. We had no problem with films. They wanted to participate.”

Coincidentally, nearly all the films they were considering had short running times, which gave Huntsinger reason to be optimistic: It meant audiences wouldn’t be sitting for long stretches in the dark. If the festival was going to happen, the Telluride team was committed to doing it safely.

Unlike such big-city events as SXSW (in Austin, Texas) and Tribeca (in New York City), which were canceled shortly before they were supposed to happen back when little was known about the virus, Telluride had more than a five-month lead to strategize about how to proceed with a responsible event. It takes place in a remote location with a small population, and it seemed possible to rethink the conditions to keep attendees physically separated, even as the participated in the communal experience of watching movies together.

Like Park City (where Sundance takes place), Telluride is a town light on cinemas, so the festival team transforms existing venues — a middle school gymnasium, historic Masonic Hall and century-old opera house — into makeshift cinemas each year. Organizers had arranged for this year’s floorplans to involve socially distanced seating, a reservation system (to spare the risk of waiting in lines) and the installation of massive Trane-brand industrial ventilation units to filter the air. They planned to add outdoor venues, including one at the base of the town’s famous gondola, and more screenings of each film to avoid crowding — plus those rapid-turnaround tests, which could be used before the Delta charter flights from Los Angeles and New York to ensure that infected patrons weren’t being allowed into town.

But there remained plenty of variables they couldn’t manage. For instance, although not so many live in Telluride, statistics showed that traffic there has been up so far this summer as tourists visit during their modified vacations. “We thought we would be bringing a smart and careful group of people,” Huntsinger says. “At Telluride, you don’t see people getting their phones out the way they do at other festivals. Our audiences go along with what the rules are, and we thought we could have great compliance.” But what about all those other people in town? What if less safety-conscious tourists refused to wear masks or take the same precautions?

“The factor of thousands of other people being in the town was potentially unsafe. Accepting that was heartbreaking,” says Huntsinger, who would like to see some of the precautions Telluride was considering employed at other festivals. “One of the things that we all have to remember is that nobody has experience in this. It’s OK to say ‘we’re making it up as we go’ because we are,” notes Huntsinger.

Sure, there are those who predicted that there was no way Telluride could happen this year, or who believed that festivals — the very name of which suggest parties and decadence, even if the reality is more socially minded and subdued — send the wrong message in a time of crisis.

In Huntsinger’s view, such events may be our salvation. That’s why she’s rooting for the Venice, Toronto and New York fests to succeed, and hopes that they may have found workable solutions for this unprecedented situation.

Looking back at the edition that might have been, Huntsinger says, “I always conceived this as more of an unplugged version of what we do, where we would take it solemnly and reverentially. We felt like we could get tone right, because it’s not a party in the midst of a pandemic. I thought, ‘Let’s really come together and do this thing we do that gives us energy to go back and be good humans in our respective worlds.’”

Missing out on that opportunity is a loss at a time when culture brings people together, and yet the good news is that the films themselves haven’t been canceled, but merely pushed farther down the calendar, still waiting to console us when the time is right.