On Friday, Mountainfilm announced the elimination of capacity limits at outdoor venues and added seats to the partially outdoor Transfer Warehouse, thanks to the latest public health order. (Photo courtesy of Gus Gusciora)

It’s the end of May and that means Mountainfilm in Telluride is fast approaching. For those who can’t wait any longer to tote low-slung lawn chairs and blankets to Town Park to watch inspiring films under the stars, the action begins as soon as tonight, with the “Local Legends & Steep Thrills” program of shorts screening Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. at Base Camp (Town Park). It’s free and geared toward a local audience ― and now, free of capacity limitations.

Last week, public health officials announced the latest regulations regarding COVID-19, lifting capacity limitations across all industries and doing away with mask requirements in most settings. For fans of Telluride’s annual documentary film festival, this was welcome news, allowing organizers to eliminate capacity limits and social distancing at outdoor venues and add seats to the Transfer Warehouse, a popular “partially outdoor” venue.

With the in-person festival canceled last year as coronavirus cases ballooned, organizing a festival in 2021 with ever-shifting virus metrics and regulations was no small feat. In addition to planning a smaller version of the in-person festival, organizers are continuing Mountainfilm Online, the fest’s virtual option that began last year.

“It’s kept us on our toes,” said Suzan Beraza, Mountainfilm’s festival director, referring to the necessity to pivot plans on a dime to accommodate the shifting realities of a global pandemic. “But it’s gone the direction we hoped, and we’re grateful to San Miguel County for being so vaccinated.”

With no capacity limits at the festival’s two outdoor venues, both of which are free and open to the public, audience members can look forward to simply showing up, finding a space in the grass, and settling in with friends and family. For ticketed events, fest organizers have reserved a percentage of tickets for every event that will be sold to those in the stand-by line. If an event is “sold out” online, those who arrive prior to the start time and get in the stand-by line will very likely secure a ticket to the event.

“This is the first time ever that you can guarantee yourself a seat at a program,” said marketing manager Cara Wilder, noting that prior to the pre-reservation system now in place, attendees followed the queue system, getting in line for all events on a first come, first served basis.

Meanwhile, the festival’s ticketed indoor venues ― the Palm Theatre, High Camp and the Conference Center in Mountain Village ― will retain some COVID-19 precautions. Masks will be required at all times, including outside in reservation and stand-by lines, and capacity will remain limited to allow for distancing inside the theaters. At the Transfer Warehouse, also a ticketed venue, attendees must wear masks while waiting in line to get in, but may remove them once inside the venue.

After the tumultuous past year during which nearly all festivals either canceled or went virtual, organizers expressed their enthusiasm for the ability to safely proceed with an in-person fest once more. At many of the speaker events, which range from talks on the frontiers of psychedelic therapy to the intersection of wealth and land use in the West, additional seats have also been made available.

“We’re in person!” exclaimed Lucy Lerner, the festival’s program manager. “We can't wait to welcome all of our attendees, our filmmakers and speakers for our speaker series.”

The in-person festival will offer the unique opportunity to engage with prominent thinkers, activists and filmmakers by going on group hikes, attending talks and getting an inside look through film Q&As. The festival is also debuting three world premieres, all of which will be screening at free outdoor venues throughout the weekend.

“The Ants and the Grasshopper,” directed by Raj Patel and Zak Piper, tells the story of two women from a Malawian village as they travel the U.S. to talk with American farmers about climate change. “The River Runner” will move viewers with not just the drama of world-class whitewater paddling but the story of a professional athlete struggling through a life crisis. And “Buried,” meanwhile, will hit close to home as the filmmakers unravel the fateful events of a 1982 fatal avalanche.

“These are films that our community is really going to love,” said Beraza, noting that despite the challenges of planning a festival in a waning-COVID world, bringing the films and the Mountainfilm experience back to the community in-person this year has made it all worth it.

“I’m really proud that Mountainfilm decided to go for it with the in-person festival,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily the easiest choice, but it’s really part of the Mountainfilm ethos: you do what you can, even if it’s the harder route.”