Opening Friday and running through Labor Day, the Telluride Film Festival is best known for its eclectic (some would say erratic) programming philosophy, which not only keeps its film schedule secret until hours before the first screenings but also will pick some movies that require such audience fortitude (such as this year's 11-language, 5 1/2–hour "Carlos") that, no matter how critically acclaimed, inevitably will not travel far past a festival setting.
But when Telluride's programmers select a certain kind of director-driven movie for a world premiere — not that the festival would ever use the p-word to describe a first screening — the audience reaction can be a particularly accurate predictor of how the film will be received in the rest of the country's art houses. Given that Telluride is a former mining town, it's in keeping that its festival unearths a whole lot of gems.
In recent years, Telluride patrons have been the first to see and embrace "Slumdog Millionaire," "Up in the Air," "Capote," "Brokeback Mountain," "The Last Station, "Lost in Translation," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Last King of Scotland" — well, you get the point. This year at the 37th annual edition of the event, a number of high-profile adult dramas will make their debuts, including Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go," Peter Weir's "The Way Back," Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" and Errol Morris' "Tabloid."
"I've never heard of a movie playing well in Telluride and bombing later. They either gain buzz or it's just neutral," says Howard Cohen, a Telluride regular and the co-head of independent distributor Roadside Attractions.
The company's "Biutiful," a complex drama from "Babel" director Alejandro González Iñárritu, will have its North American premiere in Telluride after debuting to mixed reactions at May's Cannes Film Festival, and Roadside needs Telluride to help jump-start the film's profile ahead of its Dec. 17 release.
"It's a real movie-lover's festival. Festival buzz is a very different thing coming out of Telluride," Cohen says.
Unlike the Cannes and the Sundance Film Festival audiences, which are heavily composed of show-business types, or the Toronto International Film Festival, which has a more populist bent (its slate for next week's festival includes Ben Affleck's "The Town," and "John Carpenter's The Ward"), Telluride is programmed by and for literate film geeks. Its attendees shell out $780 for passes year in and year out as an act of faith, having no idea what movies they will see after traveling thousands of miles to get there.
"We don't have to sell tickets. Other festivals do," Gary Meyer, one of the festival's directors, says of the programming freedom that Telluride's pass system gives him.
As they queue up in Telluride's unavoidable lines (there are hardly any of the line-skipping über passes seen at Sundance and Cannes), it's clear this crowd is cut from a different cloth: rather than texting on their BlackBerrys, these people are solving intricate crossword puzzles or reading Jonathan Franzen's latest novel.
"Telluride is a unique film festival in that it is less dominated by industry insiders," says Steve Gilula, whose Fox Searchlight will have three movies in Telluride: "127 Hours," Boyle's account of how Aron Ralston (James Franco) was forced to cut off his hand after a hiking accident; "Never Let Me Go," Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's dystopian novel starring Carey Mulligan; and "Black Swan," director Darren Aronofsky's disturbing look at a ballerina (Natalie Portman) trying too hard to perfect "Swan Lake."
"In Telluride, you are getting an early indication of how an informed public is going to react to your film. So as a sneak preview festival, it doesn't compete with anyone else," Gilula says. "It's an intimate festival — the talent is not shuttling in an out of limousines. And it's not the same pressure cooker of Toronto or Sundance, where everyone is immediately handicapping your Oscar and commercial chances."
But Telluride can in fact suggest some potential answers relating to those two topics, as Fox Searchlight knows very well.
Three years ago, the studio brought Jason Reitman's "Juno" to Telluride, unsure if the film even would be released that fall. But the festival reaction was so enthusiastic that Fox Searchlight promptly threw it on its holiday schedule, and "Juno" not only received four Oscar nominations (winning for original screenplay), but also grossed more than $143 million in domestic release. The studio's Telluride experience was just as good in 2008, where it premiered Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire." The movie went to win eight Academy Awards (including best picture), and grossed more than $141 million.
Of course, some Telluride movies can play moderately well at the festival and vanish soon thereafter, a fate suffered by last year's titles "The Road," "Fish Tank," "Gigante" and "Farewell."