36th Telluride Film Festival, September 4-7, 2009
This is one of my favorite festivals for watching movies. This may seem like an odd statement, people usually attend film festivals to watch films of course, but—like seemingly everyone else who got into the film industry because of their love for film—actually getting to sit and watch them becomes harder and harder when festivals are your business.
I started attending the Telluride Film Festival in 1992. The town of Telluride sits in a box canyon, and the road into town literally ends at the mountain. Even in 1992 it was expensive to stay in town for the festival, but at least back then I had no problem camping out at the campground near the town park for $5.00 a night. I could pitch my tent at the side of the creek, take a shower each morning at the facilities provided, start my day with an 8:30 movie (which meant being in line, even back then, at 7:30am), and trudge back to my tent after the midnight screening. Spending four days over Labor Day Weekend this way was, to me, heaven.
(Un)Fortunately, IÕm a little more demanding in 2009.
The practicalities of Telluride that are important to consider include expenses, venues, audience/industry and press.
There are some ways to mitigate expenses at Telluride, but not many. Flights in and out of Telluride (or any of the nearby airports such as Montrose or Durango) are limited and usually routed out of Denver or Phoenix. If you fly into Telluride itself, be prepared for a white knuckle ride onto a mountain top airstrip that will test anyoneÕs nerves. If you book early with the festival you can get on the charter to Montrose (one of the few direct flights) and then on the bus to Telluride. Those who plan for this often call it the Òcamp busÓ as your fellow passengers are also your fellow audience members. I drive from LA (about 12-14 hours) and have also driven from Seattle (usually laying over in Salt Lake City on the way down). Parking in Telluride is severely restricted and mostly permit parking, so make sure if you do drive that your accommodations include parking.
Hotels are expensive in Telluride. This year, the lowest rates seem to hover around $190/night (double occupancy) in town. I use www.vrbo.com to find vacation rentals by owners so I can try to negotiate my rate. I wonÕt tell you where I stay because I want to make sure I get the same place every year (!) but itÕs a good site to start on. Most hotels will put you on a waiting list if you are coming to the festival for the first time as their regular guests have first right of refusal for the same room each year.
Telluride Film Festival was hard hit economically this year in the same way as many festivals over the past 12 months. For the first time in my memory passes were still available for purchase at the start of the festival. Many screenings had empty seats available. In a year that saw festival attendance decline anywhere from 40%-60%, Telluride Film Festival felt at least 20% slower. Additionally, this year the festival actually added a spot on their web site about how to ÒfestivalÓ on a budget. Decreased audiences certainly allow for greater access to the films if you are attending the festival without a pass, but be forewarned that you canÕt count on that. You can always watch the movies each night screening in the park of course, but to come to Telluride expecting to see 4-5 of the big movies each day is taking a considerable risk.
Telluride transforms school gymnasiums, a Mason Hall and the Opera House, among other locations, into beautiful cinemas each year. One festival attendee this year remarked that as a producer she is disheartened to see a film screened in a school gymnasium, but I find that Telluride takes great care to provide state-of-the-art projection and sound in these venues and as an indie producer I would be proud to see my film there. I find the festivalÕs attention to exhibition very strong: they test screen films before the festival, including short films, and seem to have less technical hiccups than Sundance.
As a pass holder you will have access to all venues for any screenings, with the exception of the Sheridan Opera House attendance at which is allocated by lottery. As a filmmaker, the Backlot venue is the least conducive to a favorable audience experience mostly due to the seats. The Masons Hall and Nugget are small (ok, tiny) but films screen well at each. The Galaxy and the Palm are the largest and films do well there. Telluride has an Open Air Cinema (the Abel Gance) so bring something to sit on wet grass. The jewel in the crown at Telluride has to be the Chuck JonesÕ Cinema up the mountain via the gondola. Get there early for screenings however as the front few rows will kill both your neck and any perspective you may have had.
The Telluride team is good—but some at the volunteer level are better than others. The tier system they have with regards to passes can be frustrating for both attendees and volunteers at the films in high demand (if I had to hear one more time: Òare you just a pass holder?Ó I might have screamed) but the decrease in audience this year helped.
This is where Telluride shines. TFF audiences are deeply loyal, many have been coming for 30 or more years. My favorite audience member that I met in line this year was an 81 year-old man from Eugene, OR, who had been coming to the festival for 12 years. I was also charmed by the 17 year-old from San Francisco who stood in line at 8:00am with her parents while her brother slept in. She had more to say about the dozen films sheÕd seen than many of the industry IÕd been chatting with.
The key thing about a Telluride audience is that while industry attendance continues to grow each year, the majority of audiences are regular cineastes who just love film. As a filmmaker, this helps because audience response isnÕt tainted by a predominance of industry (for example as it can be at Sundance). The downside, since there are no audience awards, is that potential buyers have to be in the audience to see the response. Telluride FF isnÕt about selling films, but thatÕs not to say there arenÕt buyers in attendance who are watching films with a keen eye. Still, TellurideÕs proximity to Toronto, along with the economy, means fewer buyers than you would see at a marketÉbut at least in TellurideÕs small line-up, every film is a big fish.
One of the few places the festival really needs work is their press outreach for filmmakers. Since the festival has always been about the audience rather than the buzz (they donÕt announce their line up until 24 hours before the festival, and their program guide comes six months after the fact), the festival never put much effort into a press office. Trade press are in attendance, and trade reviews do come out of the festival but as a filmmaker, be forewarned that you wonÕt be spending a lot of time doing interviews—other than the casual interviews you have with other people in line.