Bill Pence

Bill Pence, pictured here with Meryl Streep at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival. (Courtesy photo)

In the fall of 1972, I lived in the closed Sheridan Opera House, in an apartment in the space under the auditorium, now known as the Show Bar. I lived there with my then wife, Peggy, and our two girls, Bronwyn and Sunshine. Even back then decent housing was tough to find in Telluride, but we rented the space from Sheridan Hotel owner Fred Stancliff for $50 per month, with the understanding that I would regularly pull the clinkers out of the coal furnace that heated the Hotel and Opera House, and that I would keep an eye on the auditorium space upstairs as on occasion kids would get in there, run around, and be up to no good.

One day that fall I heard the sound of footfalls in the auditorium and went upstairs to investigate. There were local contractor Milt Moore and Bill and Stella Pence, who, upon my asking, said they were planning on renting and restoring the auditorium in order to show movies there. I asked if they had a manager picked yet, they indicated they had not, so I asked them to consider me for that position. Thus began one of the most important relationships in my life.

Bill Pence was born and grew up in Minneapolis. His first jobs were ushering in the city’s movie palaces (all movie theaters were palaces back then, in Minneapolis, too). In the 1950s Bill joined, and then ran, the student film society while attending school at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, he saw Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” for the first time and he was hooked. As head of the film society, he started his career as a great promoter by presenting a regular film program to students, every so often combining a number of similarly themed films together in events he called festivals. Many of the films he rented were from Saul Turrell, owner of New York's Janus Films, who had championed European cinema (Bergman, Truffault, Fellini, etc.), alongside American classics like “King Kong,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and others. After graduation Bill enlisted in the US Air Force for a couple of years.

By the late '50s, Bill had mustered out of the Air Force while stationed in Europe and had spent a year in France, watching movies (the French New Wave was just beginning to make its impression on the film world), staying where he could, and sleeping on couches (including that of French film critic and scholar Pierre Rissient). While attending a screening of a French print of “King Kong,” Bill realized he was watching footage that he had never seen, as he'd shown the film a number of times at Carnegie Tech. All the U.S. prints of “Kong” had been edited (read censored) for suggestive content for the 1952 rerelease, and U.S. audiences had not seen the censored footage in its original form since the film was made in 1933. Bill bought a 16mm French print and upon returning to the States met with Saul Turrell and convinced him to let Bill put together a new rerelease of the uncut “King Kong.” Bill had the excised portions of his 16 mm print blown up to 35mm and inserted into all of Janus' 35mm and 16mm prints. The “Uncut King Kong” was a smash hit at colleges and universities, as well as at a growing group of theatrical art movie theaters that were springing up all over the country.

Bill quickly rose to being a Janus vice-president and partner in charge of the theatrical and educational (colleges and universities) division while Turrell focused on promoting TV screenings from the Janus catalog. While at Janus, Bill championed the “films in repertory” concept and “Janus Film Festivals” that became a staple in colleges and big-city art theaters. In the '60s and early '70s, he was instrumental in growing the new and classic Janus film collection that later on served as the foundation of the popular Criterion releases.

During this time, Bill began to get a bit of wanderlust for something new. He made an arrangement with Janus to move its theatrical division to Denver since their film prints were scattered in warehouses all over the country and 100 percent of the business was done by phone and fax (remember faxes?). In Denver, Bill met and married Stella, his wife for 52 years, and they leased a basement off 16th Street in what is now known as Larimer Square, at that time just starting to be Denver's most important art and urban renewal area. In that basement they built the Flick Theatres, twin art venues that not only showed Janus Films but capitalized on the growing influence of independent, foreign, experimental, and classic films.

Within a few short years, the Pences had acquired leases of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, the Egyptian in Park City, the Princess in Crested Butte, the Chief in Steamboat Springs, theaters in Vail and Mintern, and the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride.

Starting the winter of 1973, I managed the Sheridan Opera House for Bill and Stella for most of the next 10 years. In the winter of 1974, Bill brought his friend, film historian James Card, on a trip to Bill’s chain of Rocky Mountain theaters to show two films, the romance “Lonesome” (1928) and “A Page of Madness,” a silent Japanese film from 1926. The show sold out the Opera House (the only one of Bill’s theaters that did), and James Card was so taken by the Sheridan (which he called “The Jewel Box in the Rockies”) and the screening’s success, he said to Bill, “What this place needs is a film festival.”

Within the next few months, Bill and Card had enlisted Pacific Archive Director Tom Luddy as co-director, and they were hard at work planning the first Telluride Film Festival, with tributed guests Gloria Swanson, Leni Riefenstahl, and Francis Ford Coppola amongst a group of up-and-coming filmmakers and a mix of new and classic films. To almost everyone’s surprise, the event both sold out and was a critical success. It really was a show, and the word SHOW went on to appear on each Telluride Film Festival poster from then on. Thus began one of the most surprising twists to happen in the film festival world — a major film event grew in a small town at the end of a road that no one came to by mistake.

In the early 1980s, Bill and Stella started divesting themselves of their Rocky Mountain chain of movie theaters. But even though they were getting out of the night-to-night movie business, they continued improving and growing the Telluride Film Festival (from 1980 to1983 they also created and ran the Santa Fe Film Festival). Bill then got a real day job, heading up the student film program as Director of Film for the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The Pences moved there to educate a few new generations of college students about film.

Bill oversaw the growth of the Telluride Film Festival from two theaters in 1974 (the Opera House and a local bar), adding the Nugget and Community Center in 1975, the outdoor Abel Gance Cinema in 1979 (for the screening of the epic French film “Napoleon” with director Gance in attendance), and the Masons Hall Cinema in 1986. But what really changed the festival was a 1991 agreement Bill made with the Telluride school (the town had only one school building at the time) to annually put a 500-seat movie theater in the gym, using a small portion of the upstairs music room to install a permanent 35/16mm projection booth. This was a game changer for the film festival as, after more than a decade of turning away film fans who wanted passes to the event, the festival was able to accommodate hundreds of new passholders who would tell many others (including filmmakers, scholars, and critics) about this neat little film festival in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Over the next 15 years, Bill and Stella added the Galaxy, the Palm, and the Chuck Jones' Theatre in the Mountain Village to keep up with the demand for passes.

Bill's concept for the Telluride Film Festival was to show the best new and classic films to audiences who loved film. In 1977, after French actress Jeanne Moreau cancelled at the last moment due to oral surgery and the headline in the Telluride Times read, “Moreau Cancels,” ignoring the rest of a fabulous program (including the first major tribute to famed animator Chuck Jones), Bill, Stella, and festival co-director Luddy decided that they would never announce the program in advance but let the reputation of the festival sell its passes. That holds true to this day and passes continue to sell out every year with no advance publicity.

Bill set the standard that the look of the festival would permeate the town, that the entire town itself would become a venue itself. That each theater got its unique signage and/or an awning to protect audiences from rain, sun, and occasional snow. That a full banner would fly over Colorado Avenue (the first festival to regularly do this); that each festival year would have a 4-by-8-foot flag of the poster on it; that every year all the flags would fly all over town since the festival was like “Brigadoon,” the Broadway musical and movie where the carnival came to town but once a year for a few days, then disappeared into the mists only to be reborn a year later. The Film Festival's hospitality center is named Brigadoon to this day.

Bill and Stella retired from the festival in 2006 after 33 amazing years. Not only were the movie business and film festivals changing, but the work they had done at the Telluride Film Festival had changed the movie business and film festivals all over the world. The marginally accepted independent films they had championed for many years (“My Dinner with Andre,” “My Left Foot,” “The Crying Game,” etc.) became “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King's Speech,” “Argo,” “Birdman,” and “Spotlight,” seen by millions and winning Academy Awards for Best Picture. And, yes, the Pences had proven that one could present a film festival almost anywhere (Seattle, Park City, Palm Springs, Austin, and many other places would take this revelation to heart) and make a difference to hundreds of filmmakers and thousands of audience members.

After leaving Telluride, Bill and Stella were recruited by Turner Classic Movies to help organize and program the TCM Classic Film Festival, which continues successfully to this day in Los Angeles. One of Bill’s lifelong concerns was for the proper presentation and preservation of 35mm film prints of the world’s great films. During the era when film companies were junking film prints to extract their silver (early films had a silver nitrate content that gave them their sparkle, which is where the term “silver screen” came from), Bill, along with a small group of collectors, went to great lengths (including dumpster-diving) to recover and preserve films that were being trashed. The enormous collection of film prints Bill assembled over 50 years now resides at the Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard Film Archive.

Bill Pence died on Dec. 6, 2022, after a long illness. He is survived by wife Stella, daughters Zazie and Lara, four grandchildren, and many others whose lives he influenced with his work, direction, and love. Bill's fire burned so very brightly and touched so many. Those who worked for him did it as much to not disappoint him as to carry on his vision. No one wanted to be the one who screwed up the Telluride Film Festival.

Early on, Bill wrote these “Ten Things The SHOW Should Never Lose” that have provided a clear and visionary course for the Telluride Film Festival for a half-century:

1. The priority that the Passholder is king

2. The intimacy and egalitarianism that encourage artists’ contact with their public

3. The courage to play difficult, controversial, or challenging works

4. The curatorial dedication to present the old and unknown with the new

5. The look that transforms the town into The SHOW

6 The stature of an “arts” event with guests that inspire and provoke

7. The purity that minimizes celebrity, commerciality, and hype

8. Respect for the staff

9. Its mystique

10. Its sense of humor