The Best and Worst Thing About Telluride is The Location

We need more festivals like Telluride, just not in Telluride.
By  · Published on September 7th, 2017

We need more festivals like Telluride, just not in Telluride.

This past Labor Day weekend, I was experiencing some intense F.O.M.O. And no, not because I really wished I was at work on Monday. I spent a good part of my Labor Day weekend wishing I was in high up in the mountains of Colorado, at the Telluride Film Festival. I searched through the blog posts and twitter feeds of the cinephiles I knew were there, trying to construct some holistic image so that I could feel like I was there, amid all the rousing hubbub of a 3-day film festival. Last summer, I was one of the lucky few to go as Student. That means that you get a free pass to the festival and you get to meet to meet with directors and actors and discuss their films with them. By the way, if you’re reading this and you’re a student, definitely consider applying. The four days I spent at Telluride were some of my happiest. Roger Ebert described it as  “Cannes if it died and went to heaven”. There is something quite spectacular about going for a hike in the mountains right before seeing a film in a small theatre with the creators of the film present and then stepping out on to the main street and bumping into Werner Herzog.

Telluride has been around since 1974, but it’s only in recent years that it’s been gaining all this attention as a magnet of pre-Oscar buzz. Conveniently nudged in between the Venice Film Festival and TIFF, the festival has premiered eight of the last nine Best Picture winners at the Oscars. Some of this increased attention coincides with the rise of social-media. Whilst as critical buzz used to only be gauged through word of mouth and the lengths of the lines outside the theatre, now any festival goer can tweet about the films before the credits have rolled.

But the festival does try to distance itself from the Oscar buzz. Telluride is unique in that it doesn’t offer any press passes. Critics and bloggers have to line up with all the other pass-holders. Stars seem to like coming to the festival because of the distinct lack of paparazzi and red carpets. They can promote their films in jeans and a flannel shirt if they want to. The festival is a (I would presume) welcome break from the endless interviews and screaming fans at Cannes and TIFF.

Moreover, the festival prides itself on not being an industry festival. No films are bought for distribution at Telluride. And there are also so awards given out. These have been selling points for many purist filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Ken Burns who are regulars at the festival. The festival is for cinephiles. That’s it.

But who gets to watch these films is another question. When I mentioned that the press have to buy their own passes, I didn’t mean that it was a couple hundred bucks. A pass to this year’s festival goes for 780$. This isn’t an astronomical price. But when you factor in transportation to the small town of Telluride and accommodation, you’re looking at spending a few thousand bucks. And chances are unless you have wealthy friends who’d let you stay in their ski lodge for free, the bulk of your budget will be spent on housing. The festival might present itself as a festival for film lovers, not cigar-smoking Hollywood executives, but the price of admission says otherwise.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22: much of the appeal of the festival relies on it being so costly and hard to get to. Because the Telluride is far from a major city (it took me 6 hours to drive from Denver), fewer people go, giving the festival a more intimate vibe. But that also means that you’re surrounded filmmakers or wealthy film lovers (or both). This isn’t an inherently bad thing of course, but one of the things I love about going to the theatre is being surrounded by all kinds of people.

Indeed, after seeing Moonlight at the festival – in a crowd of 99% white people – one of the questions that was asked of Barry Jenkins was about making sure lower-income black families could see this film. Having grown up very poor, Jenkins was adamant about wanting to do just that. So what I’m trying to say is that I’d like to see more festivals become more accessible. Sure, a festival in the mountains of Colorado is never gonna be easy to get to. But I would like to see these big films in smaller, more local festivals. Festivals like Sundance and even Telluride have become, whether they like it or not, so tied up in the Awards season. So many films premiere at a major festival and then go straight to a limited or wide release. But if filmmakers brought the intimacy and excitement of a film festival like Telluride to smaller festivals, they might get more people off of Netflix and into the theatre. I would love to see Ladybird programmed alongside local films from my city!

Distributors need to capitalize on the phenomenon of a festival like Telluride. They need to make going to see a film feel like an event. An exciting, not too expensive event. And if there’s a view of the mountains than even better.

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